What do you think of when you hear the words, “white supremacy?” For white folks, more often than not, these words conjure images of Doc Martins, white tee shirts, suspenders, shaved heads, and the confederate flag. Or men in pointy white masks draped in white sheets, gathered around burning crosses. Or bearded, muscled convicts with swastikas tattooed across their chests.
If only it were that simple.
White supremacy does include these angry white men so easily caricatured and ridiculed in liberal politics. But white supremacy is so much more than this. And to really create an effective resistance to white supremacy, we must understand what it is.
First, it is vital to understand how power is structured. Not the inner power of life, which ultimately grinds all usurpers to dust. Rather, the nature of personal and political power. This power can be measured along three axes; 1) influence over decision making, 2) access to resources, and 3) control of information.
Influence over decision making relates to how much an individual or community can decide what is in their own interest. Voting, as an example, is such influence. Deciding what is for dinner is another. As a voter, my influence over who will be president is 1:318,900,000. As the family cook, my influence over what’s for dinner is complete (1:1).
Access to resources relates to how readily and secure one is in keeping the freezer (or bank account) full of steaks. Depending upon financial strength, this access goes up or down. At $35,000/yr, a citizen is reliant upon the next paycheck to buy dinner for the family. While at a net worth of $149,000,000,000, the Walton family can conceivably feed itself for hundreds of generations to come.
Control of information is the ability to frame a situation. This is a control of not only what information is accessible, but which information is valid. This could be in the form of a parent telling their child that the only option today is a trip to the park, without disclosing schedules and financial limits. The child’s control of information is dependent upon the parent and is unable to constructively contribute. On a larger scale, media outlets make decisions over what news is “fit to print,” thereby restricting how much information is received by the public. This, in turn, limits the public’s ability to contribute to national conversations.
Each of these axes is represented by a national institution. And each of these institutions is formed and maintained from an Euro-American perspective. It is this matrix which forms white supremacy.
1) Influence over decision making is represented in America by, none other than, the United States of America. This institution was created by white men, for white men. Without entering into a conversation around the strengths and weaknesses of this system, it is decidedly an Euro-American institution, embedded with Euro-American ideals. The structures within the institution are based upon these ideals. The mechanisms are established from these ideals. American democracy is widely regarded as the default, “best practice” for social organization. This default is only maintained through an acceptance of Euro-American (white) beliefs and ideals.
2) Access to resources are enabled through the institution of capitalism. More specifically, corporatism, which is the most current evolution of capitalist economy. Capitalism has come to be from European traditions of trade and banking. The rules of capitalism, from accounting practices to interest rates, have all grown from European market practices of the past. These practices are informed by European attitudes towards profit, capital, investment, etc. Again, without judging the “rightness” of this system, one can trace its roots to European (white) sensibilities.
3) Control of information is maintained by academia. It is within the hallowed halls of universities throughout America and Europe that the standards of thought are established. History is stored within their libraries (and notably; also within the archives of the New York Times). Bringing new (or old) ideas into acceptance by academia, requires the individual to pass through the tiers of advancement represented by degrees and tenure within this system. Whether this system is good or bad is secondary to the recognition that it is an European (white) system of Knowledge, that only validates ideas which have been tested against European (white) measures.
Somehow, we assume that these three axes represent “objective” methods of decision making, resource management, and validation of knowledge. However, true objectivity is illusive, if not impossible. We are constantly influenced by these axes which have been influenced by history as well as their place of origin. As much as we strive for unbiased institutions, it is imperative to recognize how biased they actually are.
A cursory glance through history illuminates these biases.
It is our government which established laws for; slavery, jim crow, red lining, and mass incarceration. We can argue that the same government produced legislation reversing most of these laws, but we can not deny that this government is influenced by anti-blackness. Indeed, it was formed upon a foundation of anti-blackness.
Capitalism created a means for slavery to become the greatest concentration of wealth in America, up to the civil war. The masses of wealth accumulated in that period, provided financial foundations for companies such as, Lehman Brothers, Aetna, JP Morgan Chase, Wachovia, Barclays, USA Today, AIG, to name just a few (as well as much of our railroad infrastructure, constructed through slave labor). In addition to the historic anti-black roots of much of today’s wealth, continued exploitation of the African continent, and Indigenous territories in general, is made possible through the mechanisms of capitalism.
Knowledge is enshrined within traditions and processes that dismiss cultural knowingness out of hand. Our philosophers are predominantly white (and male). The achievement of Europeans is centered by academia through all stages of education. The history of segregation within schools and universities, some of which continues today, is a testament to anti-blackness. Black history month is only necessary within a society that treats white history as the norm.
This is the face of white supremacy. While extremist groups such as the KKK, overtly promote the superiority of the white race over the black race, it is the complacent acceptance of white founded institutions which continues to support the fallacy of white supremacy as such. Within our country, these axes of power create an environment where non-white agency must first validate itself against white standards of measure in order to have impact.
For racism to ever be banished from our collective consciousness, white supremacy within these axes must be first understood, then disrupted, and finally replaced. The alternatives are yet to be realized. We will only be able create systems and institutions that honor all peoples when we discard those that favor and uplift whiteness.