Sadly, white supremacy and racism are much in the news these days. Our president recognized “good people” among the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and similar groups in Charlottesville in August 2017, encouraging them.
The greatest paradox of America has been the existence of castes of people excluded from the Declaration of Independence’s central premise that “all men are created equal.” Second class citizenship has applied to African Americans, Native Americans and to a lesser degree to other “people of color” — Chinese, other Asians, Muslims, and Latinos. Of course, Jews, Irish, Italians and other immigrants not from Anglo-Saxon countries were reluctantly accepted — the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty has always been somewhat aspirational.
Founded by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the seventeenth century, the mass arrival of the Irish Catholics in the 1850s occasioned the rise of a new party and movement, “Know-Nothing” nativists. Over time, the Irish and thousands from southern and eastern Europe were able to blend in and were eventually accepted as part of the majority because of their light skin. Pigmentation is the sole factor that has ensured that blacks remain “beyond the pale.” Dark skin makes blacks second-class citizens in America, while ironically it is fashionable to acquire a deep tan during the summer.
Theories of race and white supremacy justified slavery, although economic factors came to play as well in this gross injustice. After slavery was abolished, white Southerners retained the enslavers’ mindset, creating new exploitative labor arrangements (sharecropping and chain gangs), later degrading blacks in a highly discriminatory social system called Jim Crow. Germany’s Nazis and the Soviet Union’s Communist Party never tired of pointing out our hypocrisy. Sadly, they had a point: bigotry has certainly dimmed our “shining beacon on a hill.” It is impossible to argue that our history does not demonstrate that both racism and white supremacy are part of the warp and woof of America. Frustration, fear, and hate are natural by-products of ignorance and hopelessness, which some politicians rely on. Although we are reluctant to admit it, assumptions of ‘white supremacy” are absolutely identical to the Nazi concept of Herrenvolk, a “master race” — and equally nonsensical. Tragically, white supremacy is no longer the work of hot-headed demagogues but remains a force so elemental that it is almost impossible to imagine our country without it.
Gunnar Myrdal, Swedish politician, economist, sociologist and winner of the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize, observed in his monumental two-volume study of racism in the United States that very concept of “race” is little more than 250 years old. The notion was first suggested by a Frenchman named François Bernie in the mid-1600s. Five years later, a jeweler traveling through the Middle East encountered a beautiful light-skinned woman in the Caucasian Mountains, in the isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas, and by the 1720s pale skin was identified with beauty in European art and literature. White preeminence was reinforced by European missionaries and explorers who saw native peoples as “heathens and savages” requiring conversion to Christianity or extermination.
Racism presumes that one person’s color is superior to another’s; it results when prejudicial attitudes are combined with a power structure that dominates and controls systems and institutions of a political entity, or when one group of individuals aspires to retain control. In the United States, this has historically meant white supremacy, since white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were the first Europeans to colonize America. They were not alone in supposing that their civilization was superior to the “savages” they encountered, as the same delusion was shared by the Spanish and Portuguese in South America — even though individuals were being burned at the stake in Europe for professing different religious beliefs.
Although many rigorously deny the existence of white privilege, it is analogous to oxygen — fundamental to our existence, although invisible. Both racism and white privilege are sensitive subjects, and our first impulse is to insist that we are open-minded, without a whiff of bigotry. In reality, most adults presume that their own tribe, the folks most like us, are somehow “superior.” Every adult human seems to harbor an implicit bias, some far more virulently than others. However, the modern science of DNA absolutely debunks all racial theories — demonstrating conclusively that we all descend from a single tree.