A little over 500 years ago, white Europeans started migrating to the Western Hemisphere. They spoke English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
As a result, the peoples of the Western Hemisphere are composed of two or three groups with distinct ancestries and cultures. These are: the Indigenous peoples, the immigrants of European ancestry, and in many countries Africans who were brought as slaves.
In the United States, these three groups have distinct cultures. The Indigenous people are community-oriented and live in tribes. The immigrants and their descendants were and are preoccupied with individual and family achievements. The Black descendants of slaves tend to live in protective communities against the relentless prejudice of the white Europeans and their descendants.
All through the Western Hemisphere, the white Europeans asserted the right to possess and exploit the lands, and the Indigenous peoples as well. In fact, that was the whole program. This was the beginning of White supremacy. It has one overriding principle: White people are “in charge”. Also many of them asserted the right to enslave Blacks. After slavery, many White people continue to relegate Blacks to second-class status.
The important point of this essay is that White supremacy is a fundamental and continuing undercurrent in the history of the United States. It is part of the culture. This is why Civil Rights laws and Constitutional statements can be and are disregarded when White people wish to do so.
Notice that in this essay White is capitalized, wherever white does not refer to the color of one’s skin but rather to a changeable designation of who is considered to be “in charge”. Those in charge are always Europeans or descendants of Europeans, but may not include all such.
The history of White supremacy in the United States is brutal. The colonists took Indians’ lands, pushed the people elsewhere, and killed those who resisted. They captured Africans, brought them over in ships, sometimes throwing them in the water if the ship was in trouble, and sold them as slaves. In the 19th century White people expanded into the West, moving Indians into reservations on less-desirable lands, or killing them.
After an initial surge of Chinese people immigrating into the West for the Gold Rush and the building of the railroads, ordinary working-class Chinese were specifically excluded from additional immigration in 1882. This Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943. At the same time until 1917 there was virtually unlimited immigration from Europe.
After the Civil War, Blacks – the freed slaves – continued to be oppressed, despite new Constitutional protections. According to the NAACP, lynchings were carried out both in the North and the South, from 1882 up until 1968. A lynching was often an occasion for a White party, with family picnics. Note the pattern here in all these examples – sadism. White supremacy is sadistic to the core.
The Immigration Act of 1924 shut the door on new Asian immigrants, while seriously limiting the numbers who could enter from Eastern and Southern Europe. This act was replaced in 1965 with a quota system that enabled large numbers of Asians to enter, at a time when Europeans saw less need to emigrate or could not leave because of the Iron Curtain.
The Use of Police in White Supremacy
The police forces have always been used by governments to enforce what they considered to be the current accepted culture of society. Police have been used to break up demonstrations for union organizing, women’s right to vote, and Black rights. They have targeted homosexuals and drug users. Until recently police forces consisted of all White men. As society has moved toward more egalitarian laws and politics, they may believe that they are the only ones to defend Whiteness. The New Centurions, a novel written by Joseph Wambaugh in 1971 based on his experiences as a Los Angeles City police officer, shows the LAPD mentality of that time – the police consider that their “Thin Blue Line” is what preserves civilized society from the chaos of Black people, gays, and the underclass.
Another analysis of the LAPD in the 21st century suggests a related factor. The author writes
“Although the LAPD [in 2003] had contributed to the problems of South Los Angeles – so much so that they’d caused a momentous riot just a decade earlier – the situation nevertheless wasn’t principally of its making. And that was because in a race-and-class, stacked-deck society, one of their traditional, primary missions was ghetto and barrio containment and suppression.”1
Black people are escaping the ghettos, moving to the suburbs, and driving around among whites. The White police are continuing the suppression mission on their own by stopping cars with Blacks in them, impelled by the cultural undercurrent of White supremacy even though the political leadership has moved on. It would take psychiatrists to explain the rogue behavior by some White policemen who continue to shoot or kill unarmed Black men, often in fits of anger. Some of these are gangland-style beatings or executions, as in the Rodney King case in Los Angeles in 1991.
Now we have official sadism at the Mexican border, with the ICE separating children from their families during attempted immigration of Latinx, now defined by the culture as not White.
This is not to say that White supremacy is any worse in the United States than in other White-dominated countries, just that I know what has happened here. The continued oppression of those not considered White is urged on by economic forces and propaganda as described below.
Within the last forty years, all middle- and lower-income people regardless of color or origin have suffered from stagnant incomes and insecurity of employment. Too few people understand that this is the result of the oligarchy of massive corporations and wealthy plutocrats. These preside over an economic engine that, either through the “invisible hand” or by intent, transfers wealth from both poor and middle-class people to the wealthy. The current economic system is a continuation of the British “mercantile” economy that used the Empire possessions to increase prosperity in the homeland while exploiting the subject peoples. Now the international corporations, either uncontrollable or assisted by national governments, create economic dependency and hardship in Third World countries. Inevitably, the same practices have come home.
The immense pressure on ordinary white people has led to scapegoating toward people of color, immigrants, anyone who is “other”. This is an age-old tendency of humans going back to before what we call civilization. And politically, there is another effect.
All civilizations for 5000 years have been Patriarchies. A characteristic of Patriarchy is the establishment of hierarchies. In the United States, the struggling white people think that the Republican party’s resistance to taxation, inclusion and broad social services will help them at least maintain a kind of privilege in the hierarchy. This yearning will continue to be exploited by politicians who will try to maintain White hegemony, and this pattern is occurring in all White-dominated countries.
What of the future? I believe that of all the sorry White supremacy countries in the world, the United States has the best opportunity to grow out of it. We have a strong constitutional framework of rights that has been interpreted by courts to apply to all who are resident here, not just citizens. We have strong Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws, a law assisting Americans with Disabilities, and a law prohibiting discrimination based on gender. Over the last 50 years we have quietly accepted the fact that women can do any job or enter any profession on an equal basis to men. We are one of the world leaders in the acceptance of gay people, and are on the way to accepting transgender people as well.
As importantly, the immigration we have recently experienced has resulted in one of the most diverse societies in the world. Americans come from all cultures and are all colors, have all religions, and speak all languages. People under 30 are today one of the largest cohorts in the United States, and most young people have grown up with diversity. They could change the culture and do away with the concept of Whiteness. But given the hundreds of years of White supremacy, it will be a long struggle.
1 From Blue, by Joe Domanick, Simon & Schuster, 2015, page 267.