For several weeks now I’m been promising a post with the title of “The Rise of White Supremacy,” saying that will be the next post. But I’m not there yet. In fact, God knows if I will ever arrive at writing such a post–perhaps I will cover the issues involved in other ways, getting there piece by piece. But even though I won’t write the post I planned, I do want to talk about the words “White Supremacy.”
This series so far mostly is based on the history of the world leading into the history of the United States. But this post stems more from personal history–well, personal recent events. Though I will reference history.
I have been doing quite a lot of travelling recently–I’ll mention why later in this series, God willing–and as I travel, I like to listen to NPR. That’s “National Public Radio” for people reading this living outside the U.S.A.–it’s a bit like the BBC but less apolitical, more left-leaning (though NPR broadcasts a “BBC News Hour,” which I enjoy).
NPR has been talking quite a lot recently about race, racism, racial justice and so on. I’ve been listening, thinking, evaluating. “Are they saying something true or not?” is how my thinking goes. Sometimes I do the same sort of listening with Conservative talk radio. For whatever reason, I find this much more mentally engaging and interesting that listening to music–and when I drive, being mentally engaged helps fight off doziness.
Anyway, NPR has had on black artists talking about their perpectives on race, also Hispanics or Latinos (or “Latinx” is the term NPR uses quite often) talking about similar issues. And Asians talking about being Asian, economists talking about wealth disparities according to race, continual mention of COVID 19 outcomes being different according to race, and so on.
I listen and apply things I know to the conversations as part of evaluating the accuracy of what’s said. For example, let’s take on the issue of a higher percentage of black people getting sick with COVID. More black people live in cities than is typical for white people–and more use public transportation. There are historical reasons for that–a migration of black people away from the South in the mid-20th Century, seeking then-abundant manufacturing jobs in Northern cities, lead to black people living in cities at a higher frequency than white people. The public transportation systems in most U.S. cities were created in the 20th Century by generally left-leaning people who saw public transportation more enegy efficient (in 21st Century terms, as having a “lower carbon footprint,”) in addition to helping out disadvantaged people. So more black people, on average, ride busses or trains or subways to work or elsewhere than white people.
People living in crowded cities, traveling on crowded busses and subways, in close proximity to one another, are more likely to get sick. This must be a major aspect behind racial disparities in regard to COVID 19. It’s not the whole story–unequal healthcare coverage is there too as is the fact fewer black people in America’s cities work jobs where they can telecommute than white people living in the same cities. Note, I never heard any guest on NPR mention the role of public transportation, though they did mention healthcare and jobs. Perhaps someone did mention public transportation and I happened not to be listening at that moment, but I have heard many references to healthcare and types of jobs. Which is not wholly wrong, but is misleading.
So I often find shortcomings with NPR coverage. However, they are not totally wrong–sometimes they point out things I would not otherwise know anything about.
A Conversation About “White Supremacy”
Last night a male interviewer was talking with woman who offered strong opinions related to Critical Race Theory on NPR. It would have been so much more helpful to this post if I remembered her name, but I don’t. Besides, I am in general much more interested in what is being said than who is saying it. (I did a brief Intenet search for the interview and found a reference to Barbara Smith who wrote an article for The Nation, but I am not sure she was the person being interviewed last night.)
The woman was explaining why “systemic white supremacy” is a better term than “systemic racism.” She felt in effect that “systemic racism” doesn’t strike everyone as being as much of a serious issue than the term “systemic white superiority.” She also talked about the need for a sort of Marshall Plan to eliminate “white supremacy”–hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, if not even more than that, to combat the different outcomes that fall along racial lines (Barbara Smith wrote an article on this subject, for sure). A plan nobody would enact unless they really take this issue very seriously.
You may have noticed that I’m putting “white supremacy” in quotes every time I use it in reference to what the woman I heard speaking say. I’m not being sarcastic here. Sarcasm is very much unlike me–I’m Mr. Very Sincere. Not 100 percent of the time, but close.
The woman being interviewed wants to use a term for the purpose of getting an effect. The effect being to totally transform our society, which she reasons will not happen unless people take the issue with utter seriousness. Which will not happen unless we use sufficiently strong terminology. OK. I get what she’s saying. But there’s a problem with her reasoning.
Actual White Supremacy
In the list of people I referenced in last week’s article about Scientific Racism, you get to names like Georges Vacher de Lapouge, Madison Grant, and Lothrop Stoddard, who openly advocated things like keeping races separate, suppressing immigration, engaging in eugenics to weed out unfavorable characteristics (including racial-based eugenics), and whose writings inspired the Nazis to literally go out and slaughter those they deemed to be inferior.
Modern white supremacists have lost much of their power, but they still burn black churches, defile Jewish graves, long for a race war in which white people will triumph (in their imagination), and are a dangerous fringe movement. Yeah, not every white supremacist is a bomb-tossing lunatic. Some are more rational, calm, and deliberate…and are rationally, calmly, and deliberately planning for how white people will resume colonial control of the entire world and will suppress people of other races.
Historical white supremacy really did feed into some of the reasons why there are racial disparaties to this day. It’s what I had planned to talk about with the “Rise of White Supremacy” post. Segregation was a big deal and its effects are not over yet. Likewise lynching and other violence against black people. It was done systematically in the history of the United States. The U.S.A. has changed a lot, but not all the way. But even if it had totally changed, the effects of actual white supremacy from the past still linger in our society. But that is not the same as our society being a white supremacist nation now.
It is not the same to live in a society that has in some ways favored white people, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally (as in the public transportation example I used) as it is to live in a white supremacist society. Because “white supremacy” means something and it isn’t what the woman I heard on NPR says it is. Ask someone who lived in Nazi Germany to explain, especially a Holcaust survivor–some are still alive today.
The Danger of Conflating Terms
I of course realize that surely the woman I heard interviewed must know that Nazi Germany is not like the U.S.A. in many important ways. Though perhaps she might indeed say we have the same illness the Nazis had, but only in a less virulent form.
But that’s not what I heard her say in the interview. In the interview, she said the term “white supremacy” was better becasue it would strike people as a more serious issue. Who knows, if confronted with my reaction to what she said, she might change her tune or explain more fully in a direction I didn’t grasp. But even if she did, I think she said something true for other people.
People are using “white supremacy” in our country today not because they believe we are exactly the same as true white supremacists like the Nazis–but because they want to achieve an effect of mobilizing people, rallying people to their cause.
Intellectually I have a problem with that related to word definitions. If we call the situation in the United States today–and other places in the world like the U.S.A.–a condition of “white supremacy,” what shall we call the people actually plotting to destroy all non-white races? Super-duper white supremacists? Actual, like, no-kidding white supremacists? The terminology gets problematic. But there’s worse.
The Danger of Overreach, D&D Hysteria as an Example
The most serious problem with semantic overreach is not that it leaves us devoid of terms to talk about real white supremacists. The real danger is while some people rally to the cause of fighting racism because of the term “white supremacy,” others are turned off by. They in effect become hardened against helping resolve the lingering effects of racism, more hardened than they otherwise would be. Through over-use of a phrase, many people poo poo the idea that there’s any problem to deal with at all.
It’s a bit like the Chic tract I read about Dungeons and Dragons years ago. It claimed every Dungeon Master was a Satanist. I had been a Dungeon Master myself, so I knew that was nonsense. Many other people saw the claim was nonsense, too. However, that doesn’t mean a game with references to magic, gods and goddesses, but no references to the God of the Bible might possibly have an effect of pointing a person in the direction of modern Paganism. But the effect would be subtle, not guaranteed, not direct. It’s an effect worth talking about and worth considering–worth countering even by particular Dungeon Masters I know who are Christians who do things like have quests who explore the Seven Deadly Sins (for example). It’s a situation that should neither be ignored, nor over-stated.
But by overreaching, almost everyone I know mocks the idea that D&D ever influenced anyone in the direction of modern Paganism. Yeah, there are still a few true believers, but the false information, the semantic overreach, effectively steered people away from seeing there’s any truth to any problem at all.
In fact, “every Dungeon Master is a Satanist” is more ridiculous than “the United States is a White Supremacist nation.” The U.S.A. in fact went through a phase that was strongly white supremacist, though of course not 100 percent.
Nonetheless, blanket declarations of “White Supremacy,” while convincing to some people, strike others as nonsense. So they “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and deny there’s any truth at all to systemic racism.
But I would say systemic racism is not fictional–it’s just subtle. Worth fighting, but not the only issue our society faces. Worth treating seriously, but it’s not wise to inflate it into something bigger than it is. Note, the biggest predictor of your income is not your race but your parent’s income and how they raised you–yes, whole generations are born into poverty in the United States and stay there, yes this often falls along racial lines. But it doesn’t always. Generational poverty among white people also exists. We should ask “why?”
To deal with real problems, we need to correctly identify what those problems are.
Overreach, claiming stuff many people will see as hokum–that runs the risk of strengthening the hand of actual white supremacists…which is why I’m against it. While at the same time, I’m against seeing racism broad enough to call “systemic” as hokum…
What are your thoughts?