By Horus Alas
Four sentences into Vann Newkirk II’s piece, “The Language of White Supremacy,” which ran in The Atlantic last week, I encountered a turn of phrase that made me intellectually aroused. I’m a philosophy major who chose to focus on Ancient Greek philosophy. In the fourth sentence of his article, Newkirk writes:
“Does one become a white supremacist by more Aristotelian means, expressing a certain number of categories of being—or swastika tattoos?”
Aristotle wrote a highly-influential treatise called the Categories, in which he ambitiously sought to explain all the different ways objects of human cognition might exist. In brief, he names 10 such categories: substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, condition, action and affect.
At the beginning of his essay, Newkirk seems to be asking whether it’s a qualified sum or combination of these categories that makes an individual a white supremacist.
We might say, for example, that a white supremacist may be expected to express the substance of a particular man or woman; the quantity of one individual man or woman; the quality of white skin; the purported relation of superiority to people of other races; occupying a place in the American South, and so on.
These questions arise from responses on both the left and right to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ sweeping essay, “The First White President,” which ran in this month’s issue of The Atlantic. To summarize its key ideas, Newkirk writes, “In this argument, white supremacy is framed as a broad concept, one where wielding racism or benefitting from it, even in its subtler forms, earns one the mark.”
To operate under Coates’ schema, Donald Trump is a flagrant white supremacist in the sense that he repeatedly enticed white animus as a political tool to leverage his election.
At the same time, a yuppie living in gentrified Adams Morgan is a white supremacist by dint of being complicit in city planning operations that deliberately aim to displace poor residents of color in favor of affluent white ones.
Commentators on both ends of the ideological spectrum have offered pushback to Coates’ characterization of white supremacy. Newkirk reproduces a quote from New York’s Jonathan Chait, who claims, “to flatten the language we use to describe different kinds of right-wing politics is to bludgeon our capacity to make vital distinctions.”
Those vital distinctions do exist, and are certainly necessary. Should those of us who oppose white supremacy condemn with equal vehemence the rhetoric of President Trump as we would a yuppie living in a gentrified neighborhood? Prima facie, that hardly seems fair.
Newkirk knows as much, but also recognizes much by way of underlying nuance underpinning the concept of white supremacy.
He reproduces a quote from race scholar Frances Lee Ansley, who describes white supremacy as, “… a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”
Ansley’s remarks are telling of our own society, if we put in a bit of leg work to examine it as such.
Consider, for example, the fact that 80 percent of our current Congress is white. In 2013, the median household net worth (combined assets minus debt) for white Americans stood at $116,000, in contrast to $1,700 for black households and $2,000 for Latinx ones.
Growing up, most of us were taught about Columbus Day in terms of European heroism in sailing to an unknown (from a European perspective) continent, to say nothing of the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans that ensued in the following centuries.
Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, slaughter and slavery are two of the central pillars upon which this nation was founded. In each instance, non-European peoples were subjected to widespread brutality at the hands of fair-skinned invaders.
From the onset, the subtext of these early interactions between whites and non-whites was clear: we’re doing this because we can. Because we’re better than you.
Through the centuries, this mindset has been with us from colonialism to independence and beyond. Poor European settlers were often indentured servants, but never slaves. Poor whites today can be looked down upon via redneck tropes, but they are far less likely to be unlawfully killed by police than African Americans.
The mid-century Civil Rights Movement managed to score enough moral victories to successfully drive white supremacist discourse outside the realm of public respectability, and thence, underground. Of course, it didn’t simply disappear.
“The idea of ‘white privilege’ came about not as a mid-aughts term for Tumblr teens, but during that reaction as a way to identify the latent benefits of white supremacy during a time when white liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike promoted a fiction of progress that denied their collective benefit from it,” Newkirk observes.
Liberal and conservative commentators alike may be put off by a perceived one-dimensionality in our current discourse about the way race seems to shape all aspects of American life.
But the fact remains that the mentality of white supremacy remains present in our collective DNA. It can—and continues to—shape everything from what schools our young people attend to life expectancy, job prospects, healthcare, etc.
To be sure, we mustn’t turn a blind eye to the multitude of other sociological factors that affect people’s lives in America today. But as far as race relations go, it wouldn’t hurt to stand in the mirror a bit longer, and take a few more good, hard looks at ourselves.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pixabay.
Horus Alas is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.