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Now that the violence in Charlottesville has forced “white supremacy” into our political vocabulary, let’s ask an uncomfortable question: “When will the United States transcend white supremacy?”
My question isn’t, “What should we do about the overt white supremacists who, emboldened by Trumpism’s success, have pushed their way back into mainstream politics?” I want to go beyond easy targets to ask, “When will U.S. society—not just neo-Nazis and the Klan, but the whole country—reject all aspects of white supremacist ideology and take serious steps toward rectifying the material inequality justified by that ideology?”
The answer is obvious: Never.
There’s no evidence the dominant culture is interested. The wealth—in fact, the very existence—of the United States is so entwined in the two foundational racialized holocausts in our history that transcending white supremacy requires not only treating people of color differently, but understanding ourselves in new and painful ways. To transcend white supremacy, white America would have to come to terms with the barbarism of our history and our ongoing moral failures.
If that seems harsh, heartless, or hopeless, let’s start with history.
The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world. The acquisition of the land base of the country and our path to industrialization and that wealth are inextricably tied to the genocide of indigenous people and African slavery. Those processes and practices, driven by dreams of domination and the nightmare of unchecked greed, were justified by white supremacist ideology. The result: millions dead, the lives of millions more impoverished, and entire cultures ravaged and sometimes destroyed.
Yes, the story of the United States also includes the quest for freedom and perseverance in the face of adversity, hard work and ingenuity. We love to tell those stories, while the barbarism typically is treated as a footnote. But there would be no United States as we know it without the genocide of indigenous people that cleared the land of “the merciless Indian Savages,” as the Declaration of Independence described the native population standing in the way of a new nation. Slave-grown cotton provided a crucial raw material and equally crucial export earnings that aided U.S. economic expansion and spurred industrial development in the North.
White supremacy defines not just the states of the Confederacy, but the whole country. I was born and raised in North Dakota, and I’ve lived the past 25 years in Texas. Which is more virulent, the overt anti-Indian racism I grew up with or the overt anti-black racism I live around today? They’re about the same. What about the unspoken sense of superiority of polite white society? About the same in both places, whether it’s conservative Fargo, ND, or progressive Austin, TX.
Why do these attitudes persist? Because to face the reality of our barbaric history would be to admit that our wealth—our very existence—depends on our racialized holocausts, and hence our claim to that land and wealth is suspect. It doesn’t matter if any of my ancestors participated in the genocide (they were more recent immigrants) or owned slaves (they didn’t). What matters is whether we can tell the truth and remedy, to the degree possible, the consequences of that historical barbarism and the contemporary practices that flow from it. Being anti-racist means supporting anti-racist policies.
Here’s one easy example: Raise taxes, primarily on the upper middle class and wealthy, to fund public schools equally. De facto racial segregation in housing means school segregation, and racialized wealth disparities mean racialized inequality in education. So get serious about giving every school the funding needed, channeling extra resources to struggling schools until they reach parity. Assign the most experienced teachers to the schools that have been neglected; let the new teachers handle the rich kids. Raise taxes, and no whining.
School equity would be one small step toward an honest reckoning, and we don’t even do that. I can’t say with certainty that white America will never face this honestly, but in my life I’ve seen no indication of a general interest in a public discussion at this level.
Not surprisingly, when I ask, “When will the United States transcend white supremacy?” the responses vary widely. Indigenous and black people often chuckle, not because the subject is funny but because the answer—never—is so obvious. In general, people of color are understandably skeptical about the commitment of white America, recognizing the clash between the good intentions of many white people and those same white people’s reluctance to endorse the easy steps, let alone the radical social change, necessary to transform a society.
But the only people who routinely get indignant at the question are other white people. They’re the ones who accuse me of being harsh, heartless, and hopeless. Perhaps I am all three, but even if that’s the case, the question hangs uncomfortably: When will we transcend white supremacy?
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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (City Lights, 2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity; The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege; Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity; and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream. He can be reached at email@example.com