Defining White Supremacy.
The term “white supremacy” has resurfaced in our national conversations over the past few years. For many, what comes to mind when they hear the term are black and white images of Klu Kux Klan members in the Jim Crow era South or more recently, torch and Confederate flag bearing men descending upon the University of Virginia campus in the summer of 2017. In heated debates, the term white supremacist is hurled as an insult or at least, as a provocation.
In his book How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi clarifies that the term “racist” is not an insult nor is it a slur. Rather, he writes, “it is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to constantly identify and describe it – and then dismantle it.” The same can be said for the term “white supremacist”: it is not an insult nor a slur, it is descriptive. In his article in The Atlantic, Vann R. Newkirk II argues for a return to the narrow and specific definition of white supremacy as developed by critical race theorists in the past 30 years. So, what does white supremacy really mean?
According to critical race theorist Frances Lee Ansley:
“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.”
In other words, white supremacy is the idea that Whites are superior to non-Whites. That idea has shaped and is sustained by our culture and institutions. White privilege is a daily manifestation of the white supremist ideology. When we know how to define white supremacy, we can identify, describe, and then dismantle it.
White Supremacy and Christianity in America
As an American, to understand the rhetoric around white supremacy today, we need to take a look at the history of white supremacy in America. As a Christian, we need to take a look at the Christianity’s role in the birth of white supremacy. In her book, The Sin of White Supremacy, the theologian Jeannine Hill Fletcher argues that Christian supremacy gave way to white supremacy. In their book, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah identify the series of papal bulls known as the Doctrine of Discovery as the framework that justified white supremacy.
Growing up in America, children would often sing the rhyme “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” to recall the story of Christopher Columbus’ expeditions and subsequent “founding” of the Americas. Columbus did not just set sail one day in the hopes of making a new discovery. As Hill Fletcher writes “Christopher Columbus explicitly wove the search for new lands and new wealth with a God-ordained destiny he saw prophesied in scripture.” Pope Alexander VI conferred his blessing on Columbus’ expedition and by the authority of God, granted all discovered land to be forever under the dominion of Spain and Portugal.
Speaking of the collective totality of papal bulls issued in the 15th century, Charles and Rah state that “at the foundation of this doctrine was a narrative of European Christian purity and supremacy that negated the value and worth of the other and permitted European Christians to assume their own supremacy and privilege on specious theological grounds.” This narrative took root in the imaginations and actions of colonial settlers. As we saw in a previous newsletter, the era of colonization created a racially stratified hierarchy akin to a caste system. This institutionalized system became the foundation from which all other American institutions were built.
As we will see in the coming weeks, systems and patterns of white supremacy develop and manifest throughout American history. Using this history as our guide, together we will work to identify and describe white supremacy with the goal of working to dismantle it.