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What is "white supremacy"? A brief history of a term, and a movement, that continues to haunt America - Salon.com

By       Message Anis Shivani     Permalink
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Reprinted from www.salon.com

First in a series: The term gets thrown around carelessly, but the history of this ideology is long and tangled.

Hardly any concept is thrown around as carelessly these days as "white supremacy." It has become the go-to term of condemnation, applied as loosely as "fascism," with similar ramifications in terms of lack of clarity. Are all white supremacists separatists, and are all separatists supremacists? Is anti-Semitism (and, more recently, Islamophobia) always a part of white supremacy? Are white supremacists interested in combating government or taking it over for their own ends? Are all white supremacists violent, or do some value peaceful means of attaining their aims? Are all white supremacists even Christians? If they're not, then how does religious diversity accommodate the overall principles of white supremacy?

Getting a grip on the real meaning of white supremacy allows us to be clear about essential questions of behavior and policy. To what extent has white supremacy infiltrated mainstream political parties and actors, and how might this back-and-forth influence be addressed? What is the general set of beliefs under which white supremacy operates, and have those beliefs changed over time or remained constant? What is the actual power and strength of white supremacy, and are groups of people entering or exiting the movement in ways we can measure and understand? Finally, if we're clear about the meaning of white supremacy, we can then legitimately ask how white supremacy is or is not a product of the values we all share, regardless of our stated opposition to this ideology.Short of these clarifications, white supremacy (like the term "hate") simply becomes an abstraction that perpetuates the very dynamics of injustice and tyranny that progressives claim to abhor. If we define the concept too broadly, then the attack on all of our civil liberties is likely to be too great. If we define the concept too narrowly, then we absolve liberal institutions for their responsibility.White supremacy is and always has been in a deep symbiotic relationship with our structures of government, and with our theoretical beliefs going back to the American Revolution and even before. Both sides -- the supremacists and their opponents -- seem to need each other in equal measure in order for the tense dynamic to continue playing out. If white supremacy is truly the threat it's made out to be, if it really poses a revolutionary challenge to the foundations of the existing order, then we cannot at the same time pursue ambiguous or half-hearted measures, such as delegating surveillance functions to watchdog groups that may have their own private interests in mind. If white supremacy is as rampant as liberal analysis currently makes it out to be, then how is it that white supremacists continue to feel embattled and victimized, excluded from permitted discourse in the way of pariahs and outlaws? To what extent does liberalism itself turn white supremacists into heroes?


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In future essays I will take on in detail some central issues, such as the extent to which mainstream American political parties have borrowed from and adapted to white supremacy and continue to do so, the degree to which stylistically and substantively the "alt-right" movement differs from the known content of white supremacy throughout its 20th-century struggle with modernity, and the most effective and ethical ways to handle white supremacy as a polity committed to tolerance and freedom of discourse. For now, I'm interested in setting the stage for later discussion by highlighting what seem to me some of the least understood dimensions of white supremacy in America today.

The continuities go back to our very origins

White supremacy obviously means the belief that the white race is unambiguously superior, so we must be careful in leveling the charge because most people who are called that don't fit the definition. It is a difficult ideal to live up to. Once the protagonist defines what the "white race" is, then a set of inescapable dilemmas follow from that: What to do about the necessarily inferior races that the white race is set against? Should there be cohabitation or separation, and what degree of rights should be extended to nonwhites, both in the white homelands and in the native countries of nonwhites already living separately? Does the white race believe in a religion or political ideology that is universalistic, and if so how can the inferior races be accommodated while being philosophically consistent? Is the white race obligated to exterminate other races as the eventual goal?

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Defining what is white is not so easy as it might seem at first glance. In the age of Enlightenment, as the American republic was being founded, there was a lot of struggle with the definition, as both racist ideologues and liberal universalists parried back and forth with different classifications. Races were categorized in both America and Europe with an eye to delineating Aryanism and its origins. What exactly were the differences between Teutons, Anglo-Saxons, Celts and other identifiably white people, and did they all originate in the Caucasus? What happens to the white race in the context of intermarriage? Does it become stronger, by assimilating the inferior race, or weaker, by diluting the gene pool?

One of the earliest manifestations of white supremacism in this country, to which all later manifestations harken back in some way, was the Anti-Masonic Movement of the early 19th century. The Illuminati (adopting the vehicle of the Masons) were seen to be instigating forms of elitism that deprived the common white people of economic power. This crisis of suspicion and anxiety was to end in the renewal and reshaping of the American party system, with Andrew Jackson as our first populist president, but the yearning to purge the body politic of polluting elements became a constant. The Anti-Masonic Movement wasn't just an economic struggle, it had an indispensable racial component as well (targeting Jews and Catholics), as has been true of supremacist movements since then.

White attitudes toward blacks, in terms of institutionalizing slavery, were not always as rigid as they became during the course of the 19th century in America. When the colonies were first being settled, blacks were closer in status to white indentured servants. However, as the Enlightenment went on in subsequent centuries, categorization of the races became a central taxonomic venture, and this in due course had its effect in sharpening racial attitudes. The discourse about the black race (and to a lesser extent Native Americans) hardened during the 19th century. At the onset of the last big wave of imperialism at the end of the 19th century, fantastic new theories about the Aryan race and its others started proliferating throughout Europe and America.

Just how special is the "Aryan race," and why does it have to be so?

Imperialism is difficult to justify without assertions of racial supremacy. So whenever we encounter an upsurge of white supremacy, we are probably also dealing with the natural consequences of imperialism. In Germany in the late 19th century, all sorts of mythologies of Aryan superiority manifested in music, fiction, philosophy and the arts, often expressed in an occult manner. The music of Richard Wagner is said to have reflected this, just as in a debased way contemporary Black Metal articulates its own aesthetic of supremacy. German theorists in the early 20th century found a lot of affinity with the caste system in India, with its occupational stratification according to skin color, and many scholars suggested that the original colonizers of India were the same Aryan race that over time had become diluted to near-blackness. It was this tragic fate, following miscegenation, that German thinkers were keen to avoid for the present era.

In America too, with the onset of the Spanish-American War and other imperial ventures, a scientific racism, using and abusing Darwin's ideas, began to flourish. The coming of Adolf Hitler, in the midst of the rising popularity of eugenics and other pseudo-sciences, could not have been more timely for American racists who saw him as the avatar to fight the dark age. Various Hitler-worshipping groups formed in the 1930s, such as the German American Bund, but under pressure of wartime censorship and patriotism they didn't last.

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In Europe, meanwhile, with the coming to power of the Nazi regime, ever more fantastic interpretations of Ariosophy proliferated. Savitri Devi(real name Maximiani Portas) lived in India, married a famous Indian yogic teacher and synthesized, like so many esoteric scholars of her time, whatever myths of racial superiority she could find in the Orient with the homegrown Teutonic versions. Sometimes these myths posed the Hyperborean origin of Aryans, sometimes they suggested that the Aryans came from the three sunken continents (one being Atlantis), and sometimes they suggested the race's extraterrestrial genesis. Later in the century, the Chilean diplomat and author Miguel Serrano continued Devi's speculations in his many books, speculating that the Nazis continue living underneath Antarctica, and heavily implicating UFOs in the fate of the Aryan race.

When George H. W. Bush pronounced the inauguration of the New World Order in the wake of the first Gulf War in 1991, he kick-started the most prominent white supremacist group of the 1990s, the militia movement, with its links to various strains of American white supremacy, from Christian Identity to Posse Comitatus-- although the militia movement (which is more aptly called the Patriot movement) cannot be reduced to any of these. Just as the founding of the various American Nazi movements in the 1950s was deeply connected to the onset of the national security state in the wake of the cold war, the various movements that burgeoned in the 1990s are inextricably linked to the forms of imperialism typical of the post-Cold War era. The gains that liberal humanism perceives are often insuperable losses for white supremacists.

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Anis Shivani is a fiction writer, poet, and critic in Houston, Texas. His debut book, a short fiction collection called Anatolia and Other Stories, which included a Pushcart Special Mention story, was published in October 2009 by Black Lawrence (more...)
 

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