How Not to Write about White Supremacy

As Long as You Aren’t Wearing a Hood, You Get a Pass

KKK members riding a ferris wheel

KKK in Cañon City, Colorado, 1926

Over at the libertarian blog Notes on Liberty Jacques Delacroix published a crack investigation into white supremacy.  He claims that white supremacy is a “boogeyman” that

serves the useful purpose of taking public attention away from several kinds of disturbing socio-intellectual developments to which it is publicly tied. I have in mind, for example, the loss of agency, the creeping de-humanization of individuals implicit in identity politics, now present in every aspect of American life. I am thinking also of the fast retreat from the values of the Enlightenment, beginning in universities, of all places.

If only the damn Democrats had won more elections, the author thinks, we wouldn’t be hearing about white supremacy now. The warning of burgeoning white supremacy in our society “is primarily a cultural herd response to the loss of left-wing electoral ground.”

By attempting to show that the problem of white supremacy is not really a problem, the post actually provides a good example of how white supremacy works.

On Defining Racism and White Supremacy

Those of us who teach beginners how to write an essay or give a public address can spot a hurried and under-researched project pretty quickly. It is a cliché that such projects begin with: “According to the dictionary…..”  Sure enough, Delacroix goes right to the dictionary and looks up “Miriam Webster’s definitions” of the word “supreme.”  Only the pettiest person would point this out (so I will) but it is of course, Merriam-Webster dictionary. The author does this because, he says, “Being a conservative, I lack imagination, of course; I tend to be literal.” If he were being literal, I wonder why he didn’t look up “white supremacist” which is found in that same dictionary? And I wonder if he knows that “literal” can now mean “figurative” according to that same dictionary? Words change meanings all the time and if you want to understand the meaning of a complex term, you should not run to the dictionary as if that is somehow the last word on the subject. The idea that a complex social phenomenon such as “white supremacy” can be wholly captured by a dictionary definition and a Google search is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.

There is, of course, an enormous literature that you’d need to deal with if you were properly investigating the subject. I might suggest George Fredrickson’s classic book, tellingly titled White Supremacy, to start. Or perhaps Joel Kovel’s White Racism: A Psychohistory. Kenan Malik’s The Meaning of Race is a good, accessible survey. More recent titles would include Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People or last year’s National Book Award winner, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning.

And of, course, the author has only defined “supreme” not “white” so he’d be well-served to study something about whiteness as well. If the author had read any of that literature he would have avoided some fundamental mistakes. For example he writes that “American racism is associated with separatism rather than with a desire for hegemony.” This is simply wrong.

Racism functions in many forms. Delacroix’s “separation” vs. “hegemony” categories map onto categories sociologist Pierre van den Berghe used (which I wrote about in this post). First, “paternalistic,” in which race relations follow the master-servant relationship, and “competitive” in which actual physical separation replaces the elaborate social etiquette preventing race mixing in paternalistic racial systems. Joel Kovel (mentioned above) used the terms “dominative” and “aversive” to describe roughly the same categories. In paternalistic/dominative systems, the races may live together as long as the rules for the subordination are made clear to all. In competitive/aversive systems, it is denied that the races can live together and full geographic separation is required.

Like all analytic categories, the real world seldom fits neatly into either category. Nonetheless, despite doctrines such as “separate but equal”, Jim Crow was definitely a dominative racial system. Black people were welcome into white homes as servants, not completely excluded from white homes, for example. As long as black people knew their place and obeyed strict rules of etiquette, they were perfectly welcome.

The aversive ideology existed too, of course. For example, George Fredrickson (mentioned above) found the aversive ideology in the Free Soil movements of the 1850s. Joel Williamson contrasted racial “conservatives” who embraced the newly freed slaves as inferior, but still had a subservient place for them in the New South with “Radical” racists who advocated that African Americans had to be physically removed from the continent completely. My own work showed that the extreme right, such as neo-Nazis, moved easily in the mainstream politics of the American South in the years of “massive resistance” (1954-1964) but were not truly dominative segregationists: they preferred the colonization of African Americans “back” to Africa in service of the creation of racially exclusive geographical regions; in other words, they were competitive racists.

Making sure non-white people remain in subservient positions in society, or banishing them from white society completely can both be expressions of white supremacy. The point is that the distinction does not do the analytical work that Delacroix appears to think it does in immunizing some expressions of racism from the charge of “white supremacy.”


White Supremacy as a Social Movement

The author says he wants to investigate the “reality of a white supremacist movement.” The author’s extremely poor research is evidenced by his claim that

white supremacists groups failed to prosper during the administration of the first black president [which] does nothing to validate the impression of a vigorous nationwide white supremacist movement.

To support this notion that these groups “failed to prosper” Delacroix quotes the first part, but not the second part, of this finding from the ADL:

During the recent surge of right-wing extremist activity in the United States that began in 2009, white supremacists did not grow appreciably in numbers, as anti-government extremists did, but existing white supremacists did become more angry and agitated, with a consequent rise of serious white supremacist violence.

Delacroix also does not report this important finding from that same report:

Among domestic extremist movements active in the United States, white supremacists are by far the most violent, committing about 83% of the extremist-related murders in the United States in the past 10 years and being involved in about 52% of the shootouts between extremists and police. White supremacists also regularly engage in a variety of terrorist plots, acts and conspiracies. However, white supremacists also have a high degree of involvement with traditional forms of criminal activity as well as ideologically-based criminal activity. Most of the murders committed by white supremacists are done for non-ideological reasons. However, even if such murders are ignored, white supremacists still commit the most lethal violence of any domestic extremist movement in the United States.

As David Neiwert documents in his new book, Alt America (which I will review for you soon), domestic terrorism tripled after Obama’ election in 2008. So, Delacroix may be correct about the sheer membership numbers, but reporting that finding alone actually obscures more than it reveals about whether or not white supremacists “prospered” during the Obama administration.

Worse, by ignoring the huge upsurge in violence from white supremacist extremists, Delacroix simply does not mention many acts of white terrorism or somehow explains them away as somehow not “white supremacism.” Outrageously, Delacroix tells us that  Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, had little to do with white supremacy. McVeigh, we are assured,

paid no special attention to African-American citizens. Is it possible that we are being led astray by a media’s unjustified amalgam between “right wing” and “white supremacist”?

It takes a special kind of studied ignorance to make such a statement given that McVeigh was inspired by William Pierce‘s book The Turner Diaries which advocated for the genocide of all non-white people in the North America. To quote:

Then, of course, came the mopping-up period, when the last of the non-White bands [in “North America”, by which the author appears to mean the US and Canada] were hunted down and exterminated, followed by the final purge of undesirable racial elements among the remaining White population.

For Delacroix, this is not evidence of white supremacy, but of someone who “paid no special attention to African-American citizens.” I suppose Delacroix might mean that many of McVeigh’s victims were white which is completely irrelevant to whether or not it was an act designed to further white supremacy. If he has the stomach for it, I suggest Delacroix read about those white race traitors Turner killed in his chapter on the “Day of the Rope.

Delacroix thus concludes:

The Nazis, the Klans, and the militias don’t amount to a hill of beans at the national level. They are not rich, they are few, they have few adherents, and they are disorganized. This is not to deny that they are capable of serious crimes of a local scope.

We have seen that he reaches this conclusion by simply ignoring the huge increase in violence committed by these groups. Data that were reported, I remind you, by the very sources from which he selectively quotes. We should ignore that that half a million dollars was spent on protecting Richard Spencer at his recent speaking engagement only to have neo-Nazis open fire on a crowd of people yesterday. Sure, it was a “serious crime” but there is no reason to think it is part of some nationwide, organized trend or anything. That group of racists training specifically to beat people up? Still tiny and local, you see; if the liberals had more governorships we never would have heard about it. This young man who entered into white supremacy through libertarian readings of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises? No biggie, because those nutjobs don’t have any money! That must be why Trump decided to cut funding for fighting domestic terrorism. Because those folks are simply not up to much beyond being the biggest terror threat in the United States. I wonder how long Delacroix thinks we should wait before we talk about it? How bad does it need to get?

Why White Supremacy Should not be Considered a Social Movement

Delacroix writes:

I don’t claim that my search is exhaustive or even systematic. It needs to be neither if the white supremacist movement is either widespread or powerful. Here is why: If it’s a “movement” after all, it must express itself to exist; it must be loud to thrive.

Delacroix shows no evidence of any knowledge of social movement theory which you’d think would be helpful to his investigation. If he had read some of this material he’d see that a real danger of white supremacy is that it is not a social movement at all. White supremacy has access to institutional power. Unlike those in social movements, those in power do not need to be loud, indeed, staying quiet is often more helpful. White supremacy is powerful, not as a social movement fighting against the power structure, but as an ideology embedded in the power structure. It is powerful because it denies its own existence. The author dismisses this idea as an absurdity:

there could be a secret code hiding under fairly innocuous language to assist in the implementation of a white supremacist agenda. This does not make sense because political movements do not flourish by relying on opaque communication.

This is further signaled by Delacroix’s suspicion of institutional racism. He dismisses this out of hand: “In the public liberal discourse, this cause – racism – is normally inferred arbitrarily from its putative effects, a massive exercise in fallaciousness escaping all testability.”

We’ll return to the issue of “testability” shortly, but first a word about institutional racism. You’d think by reading Delacroix that the term is some recent invention when it is celebrating (?) its fiftieth anniversary this year. It first appeared (to my knowledge) in Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s classic Black Power in 1967:

Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms: individual whites acting against individual blacks, and acts by the total white community against the black community. We call these individual racism and institutional racism. The first consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property. This type can be recorded by television cameras; it can frequently be observed in the process of commission. The second type is less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life. The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type. (p. 4)

Since those words were written, the notion that racism, and white supremacy, can flourish in institutional structures, even absent any particular individual’s intent, has been well-established. The real danger is racism without racists. And, despite Delacroix’s concerns that such effects are somehow squishy and unmeasurable, we can often quantify the effects. Indeed, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the racially-neutral-on-its-face gerrymandering law of North Carolina targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision” (p. 9). Naturally, Trump has nominated the defender of this law to the Federal bench. In this context, does it matter if Trump or the nominee believe in their heart of hearts in white supremacy? Or does it matter that the policies they pursue further the cause of white supremacy? I think the latter. Delacroix apparently disagrees.

Another example: in the 1980s when Reagan announced the “War on Drugs”  he did not announce it a “War on Black People” but it functioned very effectively as such. When Jeff Sessions wants to bring back that very “war,” why shouldn’t we see that as white supremacy? Sure, the drug war is spoken of in racially neutral terms, but that is why it is an effective tool for white supremacy. It does quietly what the neo-Nazis desire: rounding up black people and taking them out of society, stripping them of their voting rights, making sure they cannot find jobs while simultaneously providing the country with slave labor, and making sure that racial progress is stopped in its tracks. All done in racially-neutral language and thus, missed by Delacroix’s understanding of white supremacy completely.

The “war” on drugs is only one example of how white supremacy, masked in racially neutral language, affects minority communities. There are many large and small examples that could be listed. Tiny Fey wrote in her hilarious book, Bossypants that, “Contrary to what I believed as a little girl, being the boss almost never involves marching around, waving your arms, and chanting, ‘I am the boss! I am the boss!'” And, contrary to what Delacroix thinks, white supremacy almost never involves marching around waving your arms and chanting, “Whites are Supreme! Whites are Supreme!” As Kevin Spacey told us in The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”

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