Why “White Supremacy”?

The term “white supremacy” has come into widespread usage to identify racist organizations and adherents, especially so in the wake of the Charlottesville incident (8/12/2017) and the ongoing dog-whistle politics of Trump and the Republican Party.

“White supremacy or white supremacism is the racist belief that white people are superior to people of other races and therefore should be dominant over them. White supremacy has roots in scientific racism, and it often relies on pseudoscientific arguments. Like most similar movements such as neo-Nazism, white supremacists typically oppose members of other races as well as Jews.

The term is also typically used to describe a political ideology that perpetuates and maintains the social, political, historical, or institutional domination by white people (as evidenced by historical and contemporary sociopolitical structures such as the Atlantic slave trade, Jim Crow laws in the United States, and apartheid in South Africa).[Different forms of white supremacism put forth different conceptions of who is considered white, and different groups of white supremacists identify various racial and cultural groups as their primary enemy.

In academic usage, particularly in usage which draws on critical race theory or Intersectionality, the term “white supremacy” can also refer to a political or socioeconomic system, in which white people enjoy a structural advantage (privilege) over other ethnic groups, on both a collective and individual level.1

Most white people disavow the white supremacy of the first paragraph. Almost automatically the mention of those beliefs brings the retort, “I’m not a racist.” But most white Americans are white supremacists in fact despite their race neutral rhetoric. How can this be? Willful ignorance and self-serving blindness to history and the institutional and social arrangements that make white affirmative action a very real fact in their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

cover of the book The Kerner Report, the national advisory commission on civil disordersAfter the urban unrest of 1965-66 in Watts, Newark, and Detroit, the Kerner Commission studied the origins of the riots and published a report,”Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders“. The report included the following analysis of “grievances”:

First Level of Intensity

1. Police practices
2. Unemployment and underemployment

3. Inadequate housing

Second Level of Intensity

4. Inadequate education
5. Poor recreation facilities and programs
6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms

Third Level of Intensity

7. Disrespectful white attitudes
8. Discriminatory administration of justice
9. Inadequacy of federal programs
10. Inadequacy of municipal services
11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices

12. Inadequate welfare programs

The background of disorder is often as complex and difficult to analyze as the disorder itself. But we find that certain general conclusions can be drawn:

* Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites, whether the Negroes lived in the area where the riot took place or outside it. Negroes had completed fewer years of education and fewer had attended high school. Negroes were twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to be in unskilled and service jobs. Negroes averaged 70 percent of the income earned by whites and were more than twice as likely to be living in poverty. Although housing cost Negroes relatively more, they had worse housing-three times as likely to be overcrowded and substandard. When compared to white suburbs, the relative disadvantage is even more pronounced.

A study of the aftermath of disorder leads to disturbing conclusions. We find that, despite the institution of some post riot programs:

* Little basic change in the conditions underlying the outbreak of disorder has taken place. Actions to ameliorate Negro grievances have been limited and sporadic; with but few exceptions, they have not significantly reduced tensions.
* In several cities, the principal official response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons. In several cities, increasing polarization is evident, with continuing breakdown of inter-racial communication, and growth of white segregationist or black separatist groups.2

More than 50 years after this report and the civil rights legislation of the ’60s even a casual observer of American life could think that this description of the issues in the Kerner report accurately describes contemporary conditions. Broadly American life is as segregated in education and housing as it was 50 years ago. The gap in income and wealth between whites and African Americans has narrowed only marginally. “In 2016, by the hourly wage measure used here, the typical black worker still only made 82.5 cents on every dollar earned by the typical white worker….the typical black household today still receives only 61.6 percent of the annual income received by the typical white household…..Today, the share in poverty is just over one in five (21.4 percent). For whites, the decline in the poverty rate was much smaller, from 10.0 percent in 1968 to 8.8 percent in 2016. In the most recent data, African Americans are about 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as whites. (In 1968, they were 3.5 times as likely to be in poverty.)”3

White Affirmative Action in Practice

Missing from most white people’s thinking about their lives is the role that white supremacist policies and practices have been playing for generations in favoring whites over African Americans and other minorities. As Martin Luther King pointed out in his 1968 speech, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” referring to the fate of newly freed slaves:

In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this, and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, “You’re free,” and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, though an act of Congress was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every years not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.4

During the New Deal, the housing and income support programs (Social Security et al.) largely excluded African Americans. Further, the Federal Homeowners’ Loan Corporation carried out a nationwide campaign of “redlining” identifying neighborhoods with African American populations as off limits to support for mortgages.

We could go on…….



  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_supremacy accessed 11/27/2018
  2. United States, and National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1978.
  3. https://www.epi.org/publication/50-years-after-the-kerner-commission/ accessed 11/27/2108
  4. King, Martin Luther. Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-10. Accessed 13 May 2018