"White Supremacy" Once Meant David Duke and the Klan. Now it Refers to Much MoreHistorians in the News
tags: racism, White Supremacy
In a time of plague and protest, two words — “white supremacy” — have poured into the rhetorical bloodstream with force and power. With President Trump’s overt use of racist rhetoric, a spate of police killings of Black people, and the rise of far-right extremist groups, many see the phrase as a more accurate way to describe today’s racial realities, with older descriptions like “bigotry” or “prejudice” considered too tame for such a raw moment.
News aggregators show a vast increase in the use of the term “white supremacy” (or “white supremacist”) compared with 10 years ago. The New York Times itself used the term fewer than 75 times in 2010, but nearly 700 times since the first of this year alone. Type the term into Twitter’s search engine and it pops up six, eight or 10 times each minute.
The meaning of the words has expanded, too. Ten years ago, white supremacy frequently described the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, the neo-Nazi politician from Louisiana. Now it cuts a swath through the culture, describing an array of subjects: the mortgage lending policies of banks; a university’s reliance on SAT scores as a factor for admissions decisions; programs that teach poor people better nutrition; and a police department’s enforcement policies.
Yet the phrase is deeply contentious. Influential writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi, a Boston University professor, have embraced it, seeing in white supremacy an explanatory power that cuts through layers of euphemism to the core of American history and culture. It speaks to the reality, they say, of a nation built on slavery. To examine many aspects of American life once broadly seen as race neutral — such as mortgage lending or college faculty hiring — is to find a bedrock of white supremacy.
“It is not hyperbole to say that white supremacy is resting at the heart of American politics,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton, a socialist activist and professor of African-American studies, said in a speech in 2017.
But some Black scholars, businessmen and activists — on the right and the left — balk at the phrase. They hear in those words a sledgehammer that shocks and accuses, rather than explains. When so much is described as white supremacy, when the Ku Klux Klan and a museum art collection take the same descriptor, they say, the power of the phrase is lost.
Prof. Orlando Patterson, a sociologist at Harvard University who has written magisterial works on the nature of slavery and freedom, including about his native Jamaica, said it was too reminiscent of the phrases used to describe apartheid and Nazi Germany.
“It comes from anger and hopelessness and alienates rather than converts,” he said.
The label also discourages white and Black people from finding commonalities of experience that could move society forward, Professor Patterson and others said.
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