How White Supremacy Works

What is white supremacy? A guide for understanding how to identify and denounce it.

Illustration Emily Keegin
How White Supremacy Works

White supremacy is an ideology predicated on the idea that white people are superior to nonwhites and should retain cultural, economic, and political dominance. It was a prevailing force in the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. And with right-wing parties surging in popularity across the globe, white supremacy has moved to the center of how we talk about modern politics.

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Here, a guide for understanding what white supremacy is and why it must be urgently identified and denounced.


Race is a human invention

In 1998, Dr. Alan R. Templeton, a biology professor at Washington University, analyzed DNA from people from all over the world, and concluded that:

“Race is a real cultural, political and economic concept in society, but it is not a biological concept, and that unfortunately is what many people wrongfully consider to be the essence of race in humans — genetic differences,” Templeton wrote. “The point is, for race to have any scientific validity and integrity it has to have generality beyond any one species. If it doesn’t, the concept is meaningless.”

Not surprisingly, without a genetic or otherwise factual basis, the rules and boundaries associated with race can be seen as arbitrary. In 2014, Vox’s Jenée Desmond-Harris outlined some of these hypocrisies and shifting definitions:

“The racial categories to which we’re assigned, based on how we look to others or how we identify ourselves, can determine real-life experiences, inspire hate, drive political outcomes, and make the difference between life and death. But these important consequences are a result of a relatively new idea that was based on shaky reasoning and shady motivations. This makes the borders of the various categories impossible to pin down and renders today’s debates about how particular people should identify futile.”

Modern white supremacy in North America can be traced to its colonization, beginning in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia.

“[White supremacy] is also a relatively new invention that was created to make Europe’s efforts to colonize and conquer the world seem like a ‘natural’ process wherein ‘superior’ white races would dominate ‘inferior’ non-whites,” wrote AlterNet’s Chauncey DeVega in 2014.

The motivation behind the creation of race has been profit and power. In their earliest histories, racial distinctions were invented to justify the plunder, enslavement, and colonization of different ethnic groups by white colonizers and capitalists. One example is the concept of Manifest Destiny, the belief that white 19th century American settlers were chosen by God to spread democracy and Christianity across the continent, with the resulting slaughters of Mexicans and Native Americans as understandable and even noble side effects. John Gast’s propaganda painting American Progress, seen below, summarizes the principles that lead to brutal and devastating realities for millions of people.

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How White Supremacy Works "American Progress" / commons.wikimedia.org

Symptoms of white supremacy differ from country to country, and range in severity. Skin bleaching in India, housing segregation in Brazil, and the prison industrial complex in the United States are just a few examples. But the overriding principle — white superiority over non-whites — remains the same.

White supremacy is not just white cultural dominance, it’s also social, political, and economic repression.

The term “white supremacist” is often linked to linked to swastika tattoos, white hoods, shaved heads, and mass shootings (terrorist attacks) against people of color. But the term does not only refer to people affiliated with the Klan. Watch Dr. Jane Elliot, an anti-racism educator and inventor of the “blue eyes, brown eyes” experiment, explain how white supremacy is built on a repression of the cultural contributions of other races.

Dr. Elliot believes white supremacy has infected our trusted institutions and social fabric and that no one is immune from its reach. In the documentary How Racist Are You? she said, “We are conditioned from before birth to the myth of white superiority.”

Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University, has described how even well-intentioned white people like herself can fall into the trap of maintaining white supremacy.

“The first [problematic ideology white people hold] is the idea that to be a good person and to participate in racism are mutually exclusive. So, it’s just not possible to have anything to do with racism if you’re open-minded and well intentioned. If you suggest someone is colluding with racism, they get deeply upset and feel as though you’ve challenged their morality. The second piece is the misunderstanding of how bias works. You probably have the experience of white people giving you evidence that they’re not racist. The evidence is generally how many people of color they know or how they’ve travelled in different countries or whatever. You can see that type of evidence is rooted in the idea that they have to consciously dislike people of color to be racist. They don’t understand that it can be deeply unconscious and internalized.”

That is to say, white supremacy is about power.

On Twitter, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates emphasized how white supremacy doesn’t result in just “hurt feelings” — even when an incident or encounter strips away your humanity. White supremacy represses economically. In a capitalist society, that means it works to strip away a person’s rights and reduce their capacity to advance their own interests, or the interests of their communities.

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How White Supremacy Works
White supremacy was a defining characteristic of American political rhetoric way before Trump.

As unique as Trump’s campaign was, it wasn’t the first election in which white supremacy played a significant role. White dominance is enshrined in the very laws that dictate how elections are run. A handful of constitutional scholars believe the electoral college was established hundreds of years ago in order to protect slavery.

Writing for PBS, Kamala Kelkar noted: “When the founders of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 considered whether America should let the people elect their president through a popular vote, James Madison [the fourth President of the U.S.A.] said that ‘Negroes’ in the South presented a ‘difficulty … of a serious nature.’ During that same speech on Thursday, July 19, Madison instead proposed a prototype for the same Electoral College system the country uses today.”

Madison owned slaves in Virginia and was concerned that the more populous North would outvote the South, where the economy relied on the labor of 500,000 captive slaves. So in 1787, a provision was added to U.S. Constitution called the “three-fifths clause,” decreeing that black people were worth three-fifths of a person in population and taxation counts. This provision was rolled back in 1856, but the underlying ideology may not have been abolished. Juan F. Perea, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, believes that the Constitution is pro-slavery.

A key legislative gain during the Civil Rights movement — documented in the 2015 film JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness — was the ratification of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, protecting the voting rights of nonwhites. But in 2013 the Supreme Court overturned the Voting Rights Act, “freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.”

The result? In 2016, a federal judge ruled that North Carolina had imposed voting restrictions that “target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the panel’s ruling. The Brennan Center for Justice tracked new provisions introduced in 15 states for the 2016 election, suggesting that the new rules are “part of a broader movement to curtail voting rights, which began after the 2010 election, when state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote.”

The election of America’s first black president did not end white supremacy.

It might be considered that Barack Obama won both of his presidential terms because he convinced white people to compromise on their prejudices in the hopes that their material conditions would improve. At MTV, Ezekiel Kweku argued:

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“American politics has always revolved around the concerns and interests of white people, and most white people are not heavily invested in the safety and humanity of black and brown people. Some of them, in fact, see maintaining white domination of the political, cultural, and economic spheres as being very much in their self-interest. Donald Trump won the election by playing on this fact; Obama was able to win two elections in spite of it. Crucially, Obama didn’t pull this off by convincing white people not to be racist, he did it by convincing them to vote for him anyway, by crafting a message that appealed to their self-interest.”

This approach would be bolstered by existing data from political scientist Michael Tesler, who has studied white racial resentment during the Obama years:

“Many important media stories are, in the age of Obama, understood through the lenses of race and partisanship. Tesler uses contemporaneous polling to show that events related to race pre-Obama were not as strongly polarized … In 1992, 71 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats disagreed with the Rodney King verdict. In 1995, 41 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats agreed with the O.J. Simpson verdict … Only 20 percent of Republicans disagreed with the George Zimmerman verdict, compared with 68 percent of Democrats … In the Obama-era, almost all issues, particularly ones on which he has taken a strong stance, are filtered an individual’s views of race and partisanship.”

If white people don’t challenge white supremacy, it will not change.

A post-election surge in U.S. hate crimes against Muslims — said to be at a the highest rate since the days following 9/11 — has marginalized people of color rightly fearing for their physical safety. Many white people across the country are repelled by this behavior, but it’s harder to eliminate this extremism if everyone doesn’t reckon with how white supremacy informs their own lives.

“The role for older, richer white liberals will be important but painfully different from what they’re used to. They’ll have to support other people’s priorities, put up money for things they don’t control, and use all of their social power to protect Muslims, immigrants, and every threatened minority,” Jon Schwarz wrote at The Intercept. “What white progressives can and must pursue is outreach to Trump’s white base. One of the killer robot’s main fuels is white supremacy. But human beings are complex and inscrutable and sometimes change. If just 20 percent of the white supremacy could be neutralized, the robot might be much less powerful. White liberals will be more effective doing this if they first spend time considering how they may be as equally complicit in white supremacy as Trump voters.”

In her 1989 book Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Talking Black, bell hooks wrote: “When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.”

Identity politics were born out of white supremacy, and can be used to defeat it.

Identity politics refers to any system of political thought or activity based around a social or cultural group. They can be represented by powerful organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign or the NAACP, or flourish in online message boards, blogs, and on Twitter. Identity politics have formed in reaction to white supremacy and its complicated and layered effects on every facet of society, but there has been a lot of debate about its efficacy in left-leaning political spheres. For years, African American scholar Adolph Reed has decried the focus identity politics puts on the classification of prejudiced behavior, rather than “the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them.” On the other hand, identity politics has been defended by scholars like Katherine Franke of Columbia Law School as necessary for marginalized communities to survive and find their voices.

Many believe that these points of view can be reconciled with a truly progressive platform that is informed by the experiences and issues faced by marginalized communities. Senator Bernie Sanders recently made this point (to some pushback) in a speech, and in a post-election story for The New Yorker David Remnick heard a similar sentiment from the current president:

“[Obama] picked up the thread of what he had been saying in the car back in North Carolina: that, before the rise of the new-media universe, he had been able — even as a black guy ‘with a really weird name’ — to meet people where they lived, and convey a sense ‘that I cared about them, that I could relate to them, that I didn’t condescend to them, and that maybe I was in this for the right reasons. . . . So it’s not just, like, the gushing San Francisco liberal hugging me that makes me optimistic. It’s that I’ve seen great decency among people who may, nevertheless, have some presuppositions or biases about African-Americans or Latinos or women or gays. And the issue is, constantly, How do we break through those barriers?’”

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How White Supremacy Works
To fight back, talk to and help educate non-voters, not just Trump voters.

Since the election some have blamed white people, including Clinton voters, for not changing the minds of the Trump voters in their lives. Data shows over half of registered voters didn’t cast a ballot in 2016, though when you consider that some people who helped elect Obama voted for Trump, aspects other than white supremacy must be factored in, such as media coverage of the campaign and Hillary Clinton’s strategy and unpopularity. It’s these non-voters and Obama-flippers that the Democratic Party and its supporters need to pursue, Ezekiel Kweku wrote:

“This time around, there were also black people who chose to stay at home, and Latinos who aren’t engaged in national politics, and white women who carried a grudge against Hillary Clinton for whatever reason... The Democrats are going to have to reach some of these people in order to win the next election.”

White supremacy isn’t a room one can choose to walk out of. Sometimes it takes the shape of an insult or an attack, like being attacked by the government while protecting your treaty land. Other times it’s more ambiguous but still very real, like being talked over in a meeting. It's the responsibility of individuals who want to resist white supremacy in their everyday lives to engender progressive solutions to the problems our countries face, urge the rejection of past political failures, and to take principled stands for what we believe in, for ourselves and for others.

How White Supremacy Works