For most white Americans, the term “white supremacy” brings to mind the Ku Klux Klan, slavery, lynching, maybe Nazis, folks using the n-word as a slur, and other obvious displays of racism. We may be less inclined to see white supremacy in a welfare office, or in legislators drafting a new bill, or a family choosing where to buy their new home. Nevertheless, white supremacy manifests in these activities, as well–not to mention many more. Most acts that uphold white supremacy are mundane, even invisible if you aren’t looking for them. The problem is pervasive and all-encompassing, which not only makes it difficult to combat, it makes it hard to notice in the first place–that is, unless you aren’t white.
For about the past year, the Black Lives Matter movement has been drawing attention to white supremacy in America, with a particular focus on police behavior and the legal system. Early police forces in the US, in fact, were designed to control two minority groups: Native Americans, who clashed frequently with white colonists, and black slaves. The latter purpose had an outsize influence on the development of our attitudes about policing, and the basic concept that police serve a dual role of keeping (presumed criminal) minorities out of peaceful white neighborhoods while also oppressing those same minorities in their own communities persists today.
White supremacy, as exhibited by police forces, may be envisioned as cops shooting or beating black suspects, but it doesn’t need to be that blatant, either. As the Justice Department’s report on the city of Ferguson, Missouri can attest, white supremacy is also crushing a black community under endless, byzantine fines and legal processes designed to fund the priorities of (primarily white) city officials. Laws, on paper, may look impartial. In practice, however, they are anything but. And by no means is this problem limited to Ferguson. Indeed, it’s been found all over St. Louis county, and it would be naive to think these practices aren’t rampant elsewhere.
Likewise, New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy–a facet of an overall “broken windows” policing strategy, which is itself racist in nature–disproportionately targets black and Latino communities and residents. A common response to such information is that police are active where crimes are occurring, and due to a variety of factors, more crimes occur in minority neighborhoods. One would expect this to be borne out by the statistics: if black people are committing that many more crimes than white people, stopping and frisking them more should produce many more seizures and arrests, shouldn’t it? In fact, it doesn’t. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, during the period of 2004-2012, black New Yorkers were stopped more than four times as often as white ones, yet resulted in exactly the same number of overall seizures: 16,000. In other words, for every productive stop of a black resident, 142 others were unnecessarily stopped. For white residents, 1 in 27 were found to be in possession of illicit drugs or weapons. Just based on those numbers, it would appear that police should be going after white residents a lot more! Of course, they don’t and they won’t, because stop-and-frisk and its related “broken windows” approaches are less about reducing crime and more about keeping minority residents impoverished and subservient to white authorities.
It would be bad enough if the tendrils of white supremacy ended at racist policing practices and unjust fines, but instead they extend almost everywhere. Segregation is no longer enshrined into law, but that does nothing to stop the de facto segregation produced by decades of white flight. In response to black people moving into and around urban white neighborhoods during the Great Migration, many white people fled for the suburbs–taking their tax dollars, social networks, and other resources with them. As many black people came to these cities with few resources of their own, on top of having to grapple with reactionary racism from remaining residents, government officials, and police, the result was a financial hollowing out of these areas. With housing and job discrimination still rampant–the latter not being outlawed until 1964–communities and families collapsed, and the ills of poverty moved in.
It isn’t that black people moved into city centers in an effort to make better lives for themselves and somehow failed. It is that white residents and public officials–some in tandem, but most of their own volition–rejected this trend and did what they could to thwart it. Some merely moved to the suburbs so they wouldn’t have to live on the same street as a black family. The official responses in many instances were to ghettoize black people–to relegate them to isolated zones where they could be contained, monitored, and controlled. Of course, a black family moving to a new city would probably choose to live around other black people, and fellow migrants in particular–but when virtually every last one has been shut out of all other local communities by way of racist housing laws, there isn’t all that much “choice” involved.
This is not to suggest that these specific events, these long-term trends in particular communities are part of some vast conspiracy to oppress black people or other minorities. White supremacy does not need that level of coordination to succeed. All it needs is a racially-motivated decision here and there, someone making a choice that they believe to be objective–“I want to move to a better neighborhood”–while remaining oblivious to or in denial of the racist attitudes that underpin that decision–“a neighborhood that doesn’t have any black people in it.”
But at this late date, it’s no longer acceptable to passively ignore the signs of white supremacy that surround us. There is simply too much evidence, and too much information available for one to be anything other than purposefully ignorant. All one must do to uphold white supremacy is to pretend it doesn’t exist. But it does exist, in obvious symbols like the Mississippi state flag (which contains a Confederate battle standard), to policing practices that disproportionately target racial minorities, to a legal system that is flooded with minority offenders who receive harsher charges and convictions than their white counterparts, to the ongoing phenomenon of white flight, and even to the pervasive assumption that, when a black person speaks about racial injustice, they are just “seeing racism everywhere” or “playing the race card.” If one sees racism everywhere, it’s because they have opened their eyes to see things as they truly are.
One cannot fight what one cannot see, and once one has seen white supremacy for what it is, it can’t be unseen until it no longer exists.
It is our responsibility, as white Americans and as the inheritors and beneficiaries of white supremacy, to recognize the racist foundations of our culture, understand that they are not buried in the depths of history but that they reverberate fully into the present day and into the daily experiences of racial minorities, and resolve to dismantle and eventually destroy this hateful phenomenon. If individual decisions can promote white supremacy, then individual decisions can also tear it down. Tackling the problems in our institutions is surely more difficult, as they change more slowly than the culture around them, but hardly impossible. Racial justice cannot be achieved with one or even a hundred symbolic or individual victories, but rather with a transformed culture and transformed nation that has truly grappled with its history, reshaped its present, and has committed to never repeating those same mistakes.
This is unlikely to be the last time I speak on this subject. But for further reading, I highly recommend the following voices:
- Ta-Nehisi Coates — writer for The Atlantic
- Kat Blaque — blogger and commentator
- Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey — vlogger, actress
- Johnetta Elzie — Black Lives Matter activist
- DeRay McKesson — Black Lives Matter activist
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