What Is White Supremacy?
What Is White Supremacy?
By Elizabeth Martínez / soaw.org

White Supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.

I. What does it mean to say it is a system?

The most common mistake people make when they talk about racism is to think it is a collection of prejudices and individual acts of discrimination. They do not see that it is a system, a web of interlocking, reinforcing institutions: economic, military, legal, educational, religious, and cultural. As a system, racism affects every aspect of life in a country.

By not seeing that racism is systemic (part of a system), people often personalize or individualize racist acts. For example, they will reduce racist police behavior to "a few bad apples" who need to be removed, rather than seeing it exists in police departments all over the country and is basic to the society. This mistake has real consequences: refusing to see police brutality as part of a system, and that the system needs to be changed, means that the brutality will continue.

The need to recognize racism as being systemic is one reason the term White Supremacy has been more useful than the term racism. They refer to the same problem but:

A. The purpose of racism is much clearer when we call it "white supremacy." Some people think of racism as just a matter of prejudice. "Supremacy" defines a power relationship.

B. Race is an unscientific term. Although racism is a social reality, it is based on a term which has no biological or other scientific reality.

C. The term racism often leads to dead-end debates about whether a particular remark or action by an individual white person was really racist or not. We will achieve a clearer understanding of racism if we analyze how a certain action relates to the system of White Supremacy.

D. The term White Supremacy gives white people a clear choice of supporting or opposing a system, rather than getting bogged down in claims to be anti-racist (or not) in their personal behavior.

II. What does it mean to say White Supremacy is historically based?

Every nation has a creation myth, or origin myth, which is the story people are taught of how the nation came into being. Ours says the United States began with Columbus's so-called "discovery" of America, continued with settlement by brave Pilgrims, won its independence from England with the American Revolution, and then expanded westward until it became the enormous, rich country you see today.

That is the origin myth. It omits three key facts about the birth and growth of the United States as a nation. Those facts demonstrate that White Supremacy is fundamental to the existence of this country.

A. The United States is a nation state created by military conquest in several stages. The first stage was the European seizure of the lands inhabited by indigenous peoples, which they called Turtle Island. Before the European invasion, there were between nine and eighteen million indigenous people in North America. By the end of the Indian Wars, there were about 250,000 in what is now called the United States, and about 123,000 in what is now Canada (source of these population figures from the book _The State of Native America_ ed. by M. Annette Jaimes, South End Press, 1992). That process must be called genocide, and it created the land base of this country. The elimination of indigenous peoples and seizure of their land was the first condition for its existence.

B. The United States could not have developed economically as a nation without enslaved African labor. When agriculture and industry began to grow in the colonial period, a tremendous labor shortage existed. Not enough white workers came from Europe and the European invaders could not put indigenous peoples to work in sufficient numbers. It was enslaved Africans who provided the labor force that made the growth of the United States possible.

That growth peaked from about 1800 to 1860, the period called the Market Revolution. During this period, the United States changed from being an agricultural/commercial economy to an industrial corporate economy. The development of banks, expansion of the credit system, protective tariffs, and new transportation systems all helped make this possible. But the key to the Market Revolution was the export of cotton, and this was made possible by slave labor.

C. The third major piece in the true story of the formation of the United States as a nation was the take-over of half of Mexico by war -- today's Southwest. This enabled the U.S. to expand to the Pacific, and thus open up huge trade with Asia -- markets for export, goods to import and sell in the U.S. It also opened to the U.S. vast mineral wealth in Arizona, agricultural wealth in California, and vast new sources of cheap labor to build railroads and develop the economy.

The United States had already taken over the part of Mexico we call Texas in 1836, then made it a state in 1845. The following year, it invaded Mexico and seized its territory under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. A few years later, in 1853, the U.S. acquired a final chunk of Arizona from Mexico by threatening to renew the war. This completed the territorial boundaries of what is now the United States.

Those were the three foundation stones of the United States as a nation. One more key step was taken in 1898, with the takeover of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam and Cuba by means of the Spanish-American War. Since then, all but Cuba have remained U.S. colonies or neo-colonies, providing new sources of wealth and military power for the United States. The 1898 take-over completed the phase of direct conquest and colonization, which had begun with the murderous theft of Native American lands five centuries before.

Many people in the United States hate to recognize these truths. They prefer the established origin myth. They could be called the Premise Keepers.

III. What does it mean to say that White Supremacy is a system of exploitation?

The roots of U.S. racism or White Supremacy lie in establishing economic exploitation by the theft of resources and human labor, then justifying that exploitation by institutionalizing the inferiority of its victims. The first application of White Supremacy or racism by the EuroAmericans who control U.S. society was against indigenous peoples. Then came Blacks, originally as slaves and later as exploited waged labor. They were followed by Mexicans, who lost their means of survival when they lost their land holdings, and also became wage-slaves. Mexican labor built the Southwest, along with Chinese, Filipino, Japanese and other workers.

In short, White Supremacy and economic power were born together. The United States is the first nation in the world to be born racist (South Africa came later) and also the first to be born capitalist. That is not a coincidence. In this country, as history shows, capitalism and racism go hand in hand.

IV. Origins of Whiteness and White Supremacy as Concepts

The first European settlers called themselves English, Irish, German, French, Dutch, etc. -- not white. Over half of those who came in the early colonial period were servants. By 1760 the population reached about two million, of whom 400,000 were enslaved Africans. An elite of planters developed in the southern colonies. In Virginia, for example, 50 rich white families held the reins of power but were vastly outnumbered by non-whites. In the Carolinas, 25,000 whites faced 40,000 Black slaves and 60,000 indigenous peoples in the area. Class lines hardened as the distinction between rich and poor became sharper. The problem of control loomed large and fear of revolt from below grew.

There had been slave revolts from the beginning but elite whites feared even more that discontented whites -- servants, tenant farmers, the urban poor, the property-less, soldiers and sailors -- would join Black slaves to overthrow the existing order. As early as 1663, indentured white servants and Black slaves in Virginia had formed a conspiracy to rebel and gain their freedom. In 1676 came Bacon's Rebellion by white frontiersmen and servants alongside Black slaves. The rebellion shook up Virginia's planter elite. Many other rebellions followed, from South Carolina to New York. The main fear of elite whites everywhere was a class fear. Their solution: divide and control. Certain privileges were given to white indentured servants. They were allowed to join militias, carry guns, acquire land, and have other legal rights not allowed to slaves. With these privileges they were legally declared white on the basis of skin color and continental origin. That made them "superior" to Blacks (and Indians). Thus whiteness was born as a racist concept to prevent lower-class whites from joining people of color, especially Blacks, against their class enemies. The concept of whiteness became a source of unity and strength for the vastly outnumbered Euroamericans -- as in South Africa, another settler nation. Today, unity across color lines remains the biggest threat in the eyes of a white ruling class.

White Supremacy

In the mid-1800s, new historical developments served to strengthen the concept of whiteness and insitutionalize White Supremacy. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny, born at a time of aggressive western expansion, said that the United States was destined by God to take over other peoples and lands. The term was first used in 1845 by the editor of a popular journal, who affirmed "the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government."

Since the time of Jefferson, the United States had had its eye on expanding to the Pacific Ocean and establishing trade with Asia. Others in the ruling class came to want more slave states, for reasons of political power, and this also required westward expansion. Both goals pointed to taking over part of Mexico. The first step was Texas, which was acquired for the United States by filling the territory with Anglos who then declared a revolution from Mexico in 1836. After failing to purchase more Mexican territory, President James Polk created a pretext for starting a war with the declared goal of expansion. The notoriously brutal, two-year war was justfied in the name of Manifest Destiny.

Manifest Destiny is a profoundly racist concept. For example, a major force of opposition to gobbling up Mexico at the time came from politicians saying "the degraded Mexican-Spanish" were unfit to become part of the United States; they were "a wretched people . . . mongrels." In a similar way, some influential whites who opposed slavery in those years said Blacks should be removed from U.S. soil, to avoid "contamination" by an inferior people (source of all this information is the book _Manifest Destiny_ by Anders Stephanson, Hill & Wang, 1995).

Earlier, Native Americans had been the target of white supremacist beliefs which not only said they were dirty, heathen "savages," but fundamentally inferior in their values. For example, they did not see land as profitable real estate but as Our Mother.

The doctrine of Manifest Destiny facilitated the geographic extension and economic development of the United States while confirming racist policies and practices. It established White Supremacy more firmly than ever as central to the U.S. definition of itself. The arrogance of asserting that God gave white people (primarily men) the right to dominate everything around them still haunts our society and sustains its racist oppression.

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What Is White Supremacy?