Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and White Supremacy

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and White Supremacy

Adam Driver stars as Flip Zimmerman and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKLansman, a Focus Features release. Credit: David Lee / Focus Features
Adam Driver stars as Flip Zimmerman and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKLansman,
Photo credit: David Lee / Focus Features

Spike Lee’s latest movie focuses on the story of a black detective who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in 1978 and ’79. As a movie that is being widely seen and reviewed by white, probably mostly liberal, Americans it is frustrating that most viewers will feel outrage at the white supremacist rhetoric and ideology of the KKK without moving towards a deeper understanding of how white supremacy actually is working today.

The challenge for those who want to make progress in creating a more democratic, equitable society is to understand how thoroughly white supremacy is built into our day-to-day structures. We need to move beyond understanding the white supremacy of the KKK and the Jim Crow laws to see how our history for the last 80 years and more is interpenetrated by laws, public policies, and private actions that have sustained white supremacy.

From the New Deal into the mid-1960s the Federal government was essentially captured by Southern Democrats in the areas of social policy. Northern liberal Democrats caved into the political expediency of their generation. Every major piece of social legislation sustained and reinforced the Jim Crow system of segregation and oppression of African Americans. This system created the white suburbs of the post-WWII boom with their white public schools and white middle-class jobs. African Americans could not join white America in home ownership which became an essential wealth-building tool. Public education enjoyed a similar boom during the post-WWII era, especially higher education through the gigantic expansion of public universities. Again African Americans largely could not participate.

In the post-Civil Rights era following the Federal legislation of the 1960s, the Federal and state governments have persisted in taking no responsibility for creating the segregated America that we now live in. The official line is that segregation is de facto, the result of natural forces of selection and not the structures of segregation built into housing construction and real estate industries. Similarly, public education has remained as segregated as ever following similar lines of self-justifying thinking. White America needs to face up to its history and demand that the government, rich and corporations take concrete actions to end white supremacist policies.

Beyond the sphere of government actions there is the white affirmative action built into white lives. Money and social connections bring preferred access to housing, education, healthcare, and social networks to others in the community of the rich and corporate elite.