Who or what is a white supremacist, exactly? The raging debate has resembled nothing so much as a classical ontological discourse on categorization. Are white supremacists considered so because they consider themselves so? Does one become a white supremacist by more Aristotelian means, expressing a certain number of categories of being—or swastika tattoos? Or is the definition something more slippery and subtle?
Hill’s comments came as part of the general response to an essay from my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, one in which Coates says that Trump’s “ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.” The bent of that essay is that whiteness—and in turn white supremacy—uniquely buoyed Trump’s candidacy, and that he has in turn openly wielded those energies to capture support and lead. Hill’s summation seemed to complete the square of that argument: “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” In this argument, white supremacy is framed as a broad concept, one where wielding racism or benefitting from it, even in its subtler forms, earns one the mark.
There are several shades of gray to those objections, but a column from Jonathan Chait in New York sums them up best. Chait does not agree with an expansive definition of white supremacy that would capture say David Duke, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump, writing that “to flatten the language we use to describe different kinds of right-wing politics is to bludgeon our capacity to make vital distinctions.” Chait sees this labeling as a kind of language creep that in casting a wide net simultaneously cheapens some of America’s cherished institutions and in turn might tend to encourage radical acts against them.
To perhaps unfairly flatten these three arguments, which constitute the best of this school of objection, they tend to agree that the modern expansive definition of white supremacy is, well, modern. But that proposition is limited. The school of critical race theory, championed by scholars such as bell hooks, has been around in academic circles for at least 30 years, and its definition of white supremacy has long animated black activism. To quote scholar Frances Lee Ansley (taken here from a passage from David Gillborn, also, a critical-race-theory scholar):
“By ‘white supremacy’ I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”The provenance of that definition of white supremacy does not alone guarantee its usefulness, and 30 years is still relatively new in the academia-to-modern parlance frame. Also, as my colleague Conor Friedersdorf noted last November, the critical-race-theory definition could very well be “the vernacular of a tiny, insular subculture,” one which is contested and has not reached the level of consensus.
But the idea of critical-race-theory’s insularity is belied by its deep communion with widely-read titans of black intellectual thought. James Baldwin’s work did nothing if not tend towards the idea of “white supremacy” as a collective effort that went well beyond the work of self-avowed members of hate groups, and his 1980 essay in Esquire titled “Dark Days” crystalized that tendency. “To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy,” Baldwin wrote. In that essay, which itself was written in parallel with the nascence of critical race theory, Baldwin ties the very concept of whiteness to white supremacy.
“However much it is denied, however many excuses are made, the hard cold fact is that many white Americans oppose open housing because they unconsciously, and often consciously, feel that the Negro is innately inferior, impure, depraved and degenerate,” King wrote. “It is a contemporary expression of America’s long dalliance with racism and white supremacy.”
King saw that white supremacy was a structural pillar of America equally important to democracy itself. In that work, King also analyzed “white backlash” not as an insurgency responding to proximate political factors or politicians, but as a visceral, enduring autonomous response guided by white supremacy. In other words, King used “white supremacy” in a way that might have seen him scolded today, by many who do the scolding in his name.
Correspondingly, as new policies intersected with public opinion and genuine policy victories won by the civil-rights movement, expressing racism became gauche, and then taboo. That taboo itself crystallized a self-conceptualization of whiteness as innately anti-racist. In turn, charges of racism themselves became epithets, and the mantle of white supremacy was relegated only to the ranks of those white folks foolish or ideological enough not to abide by the taboo. As both Chait and Drum implicitly outline in their work, now the only way to be identified as a white supremacist is to say you are one.
It goes without saying that this realignment almost exclusively benefitted white supremacists, who did not suddenly die with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In no small bit of class warfare, whites who most often carried out direct violence in white supremacy’s name took the heat, giving space to the white men in suits who did their work quietly with litigation and city-planning maps. Those people of color who critiqued white supremacy were cemented as malcontents and agitators, themselves racists or “race-baiters” who sought to exploit white guilt to upend American racial harmony.[/B]
The media likewise should not be merely a mirror of consensus; rather it should challenge groupthink any time it runs up against truth. And if consensus is that white supremacy is a thing that only exists in the hate-group fringe, that claim should be held in skepticism against the reality that many of the racial outcomes—income gaps, housing and education segregation, police brutality, and incarceration—of the era of naked white supremacy persist, or have even worsened. And when it comes to Trump, or any other politician for that matter, the knee-jerk consensus reaction that a mainstream politician cannot possibly be a white supremacist should be balanced with the truth that many or most American politicians have been, and that they were voted in by real Americans, many of whom are alive, well, and voting today.
These demands are difficult to square in today’s polarized, litigious environment. But, to counter Chait, while a more expansive view of white supremacy in media’s contemplation of politics may seem to “flatten” political discourse, perhaps the difficulty here is facing the possibility that things might actually be flat. Politics might actually be trapped in the black box of white supremacy, and people very well might be on a historical treadmill, fighting the fights their parents fought, and maybe losing. If that version of reality is true, then the panic brought on by that flattened language might be justified.