Jewish Word | Is Everyone a White Supremacist?
Turn on the news, read the paper, check Twitter, and chances are that you will quickly come across someone—from a mass shooter to the president of the United States—being described as a “white supremacist.” The term, historically used to describe an adherent to the ideology of white supremacy, is now thrown around so often that it no longer is always clear what it means.
The term “white supremacy” began appearing in the early 1800s, according to The Oxford English Dictionary. Early citations are found in books such as Emancipation: Or Practical Advice to British Slave-holders and Thirty Years in India, as well as from “The First Annual Report of the Edinburgh Society for Promoting the Mitigation and Ultimate Abolition of Negro Slavery,” which describes conditions in the Carribbean British colonies: “Now…we arrive at the truth of the matter and find that the whip is of the very essence of the system,” the report reads, “and that the right to use it is the fundamental charter of white supremacy.”
“White supremacy” soon made its way to the United States, says Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “Whites living in the South before the Civil War felt pressure to respond to abolitionism,” says Pitcavage. “They came up with a series of arguments justifying white domination in the South through the institution of slavery. In that context, they used the term ‘white supremacy’ positively, to suggest that it was natural law and the way things should be.” In 1856, for example, Kansas settler Jefferson Buford, in a widely publicized appeal to have the territory admitted into the Union as a slave state, asked if Kansans were “prepared to surrender white supremacy in the South.”
The Confederacy was defeated but not the ideology, says Mark Potok, former senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and editor of the SPLC’s Intelligence Report. But white supremacy took on a new element of victimization. “Supporters of this ideology in the late 19th and early 20th century started developing the argument that white supremacy is being lost, that [whites] are being swamped—and that people who have no right to it are taking what we had away.”
In 1867, John Van Evrie, a notorious pseudo-scientist from New York, published his book White Supremacy and Negro Subordination. “Van Evrie put the term ‘white supremacy’ on the map, and his intention was to naturalize black subordination and white supremacy,” says Christopher Petrella, Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships for the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University. His philosophy was promoted by men such as Thomas Dixon Jr., whose novel was the source material for the 1915 blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation, and Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, a Harvard-trained historian and author of the popular The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. “What people like Dixon and Stoddard did,” Petrella says, “was to replace the scientific argument for white supremacy with a cultural argument that whites are in some way culturally superior to other groups, and that idea is still very much absorbed in America today.”
In the 1960s, the civil rights and Black Power movements took aim at this thinking. In his 1962 New Yorker essay “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” James Baldwin described the “great force and cunning” needed to challenge the “indifferent fortress of white supremacy.” The following year, his friend Malcolm X declared “the end of white supremacy.” Later, African-American feminist and activist bell hooks (sic) coined the phrase, “Imperialist White-Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.”
These efforts, Petrella says, “helped bring the terms into popular discourse as a critique,” but led them to fall out of favor. Even people who adhered to the ideology, or some variant of it, stopped using the terms, says the ADL’s Pitcavage. Complained former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke in a 2006 podcast, “I’m often called in the media, it’s like a part of my name, white supremacist. I’m not one. I don’t want white people to be supreme…But I do think we have a right to preserve our own culture, own heritage in our own country.” Duke and others began to refer to themselves by more palatable names: white separatist, nationalist, “racial realist” or—more recently—the “alt-right.”
Yet usage of “white supremacy” and “white supremacist” has surged in the U.S. in recent years, reflecting the rekindling of anti-immigrant, anti-minority and anti-Semitic sentiments and the backlash against them. The term really caught fire after the deadly Charlottesville rally in August 2017. A few months later, protesters interrrupted a speech by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at Harvard, accusing her of being a white supremacist. Liberal writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates have repeatedly called President Trump a white supremacist. Both Trump and his staff have rejected this claim: In the aftermath of the New Zealand mosque massacre, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said: “The president is not a white supremacist. I’m not sure how many times we have to say that.”
“For what it’s worth, this is a terrible fad,” wrote Kevin Drum in Mother Jones in 2017 on the tendency to label everyone a white supremacist. “With the exception of actual neo-Nazis and a few others, there isn’t anyone in America who’s trying to promote the idea that whites are inherently superior to blacks or Latinos. Conversely, there are loads of Americans who display signs of overt racism—or unconscious bias or racial insensitivity or resentment over loss of status—in varying degrees.”
SPLC’s Potok says the overuse of the terms erodes their gravity and is giving a pass to real white supremacists. “The white supremacist movement itself is still ugly and dangerous—and it should be called by its name.”