White supremacy has two different overlapping meanings, resulting in somewhat distinct literatures. The more all-encompassing literature deals with “cultural studies” and “critical race theory” and views white supremacy as an endemic part of Western culture and society. The other, more traditional approach narrowly focuses on white supremacy as primarily an activist phenomenon, a social movement and/or ideology; its studies focus on organized groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Endemic White Supremacy
In this perspective white supremacy is so historically infused into Western culture and embedded into social structure that to speak of “society” in the U.S., European, or postcolonial context is, practically, to speak of white supremacy, as well as “racism,” “white privilege,” and “Eurocentric domination” on a global scale. All are parts of the whole, sometimes called “racialized social structures”—political and cultural systems that perpetuate inequality across racialized groups of people.
Proponents hold that to understand white supremacy, one must understand, or at least acknowledge, the roots of these social structures in European (white) colonialism. “Race” itself was invented through colonizers’ efforts to understand and rationalize the differences between themselves and the people they subjugated. Thus, “race” explains and maintains inequality, and to this day we live in a fundamentally unjust world built by race.
Individual attitudes, utterances, or discriminatory acts are rarely at issue in this literature, except in reinforcing assumptions that “white is right,” or that whites’ cultural ways are normative and proper. For example, whites often see their styles of social interaction as “normal” (rather than culturally white), and nonwhite Christians sometimes uncritically absorb images of a white (Europeanized) Jesus.
Scholars say white supremacy has changed over time, evolving particularly in terms of strategies for its self-preservation. As domination by repression and terror ended in the mid-20th century, white supremacy metamorphosed into “domination by seduction.” Thus, many recent scholars focus on how it continues without overtly racist whites, often invoking the term color-blind racism to characterize political ideologies that ahistorically champion property and individual rights yet deny the racial history of collective repression, thereby ensuring policies that do not threaten white control over most of the power and wealth in the world.
Activist White Supremacy
The second approach to white supremacy involves active white supremacists who overtly proclaim, in one way or another, that there exists a distinct race of people (“whites”) who have a special place in humanity, are in many ways superior to nonwhites, and require segregation to avoid social, cultural, and biological contamination by nonwhites. These include a diverse set of groups who maintain that white interests must be actively protected and advanced: the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, Aryan Brotherhood, Christian Identity, Skinheads, and some militia groups, for example.
Researchers study these organizations and subcultures, also focusing on a burgeoning cyberculture. Similarities include almost universal antipathy toward Jews, blacks, and homosexuals. Nevertheless, white supremacists remain ideologically fractured, with many differences in ideology regarding religion, the use of violence, or even who is “white.”
White supremacists instill fear not only because of their past terrorism but also because of recent hate crimes and proclamations ranging from dismantling welfare programs to terrorist “racial holy war” (“RAHOWA”). Weakened after World War II and again in the wake of the 1960s civil rights movement, organized white supremacists have since rejuvenated, according to watchdog organizations, such as the Intelligence Project and the Anti-Defamation League, who monitor white supremacist activities and harbor concerns that these groups might successfully tap into incipient racial hatred, especially among impressionable white youths.
Keenly aware of their socially marginal status as cognitive deviants, white supremacists try to overcome their stigma. Rarely do they refer to themselves as racists or as white supremacists; they are more likely to use more nebulous terms like racialist or white separatist or, in the U.S. context, patriots. Their public rhetoric places less emphasis on genetic superiority (while never denying it) and more on white cultural and individual rights, especially rights to live separately from nonwhites (in “white” countries). They present themselves as less rabid and more rational, less ignorant and more sophisticated. Impression management also involves portraying whites as victims of a government supposedly manipulated by Jews with black assistance, feeding into a defensive rhetoric of preserving both a cultural heritage and the white race itself. They vilify whites who disagree as “race-traitors,” their racial consciousness subverted by “multicultural” propaganda, often traced to the media and Hollywood, both allegedly run by Jews for this very purpose of mind control.
While highly diverse, white supremacists tend to come from the lower or working classes, rural areas, and low educational backgrounds. However, their situations may simply result in racially homogeneous social networks, and therefore they may have little ordinary social interaction with blacks, Jews, or gays. Similarly, as with religious cults, most join as a result of ordinary social networks in which they find themselves, not through formal recruitment. Those who remain involved do so in part because the subculture provides them with a sense of identity and meaning. Of course, some members also grew up in white supremacist families. Some researchers argue that members’ racial hatred is often more an outgrowth from these social settings than a cause.
White supremacists consistently oppose immigration (of nonwhites), and their rhetoric—once concerned with “states’ rights” and communism—now focuses more on opposing affirmative action, welfare, and foreign aid (especially to Israel). Although women have long been actively involved in white supremacist organizations and never merely passive and uninvolved followers of their men into the movement, white supremacist subcultures have tended to be strongly patriarchal and anti-feminist. White supremacist men are as concerned with white masculinity as with whiteness. They often express particular concern about racial miscegenation, coupled (verbally or in print) with images of black males as violent sexual predators seeking white women.
Marginalized, activist white supremacists have created parallel institutions within which they can interact without nonwhites, such as at annual conferences and racist music concerts. They have also been very active on the Internet, using it to create social networks that are increasingly international in scope.
- Adams, Josh and Vincent J. Roscigno. 2005. “White Supremacists, Oppositional Culture and the World Wide Web.” Social Forces 84(2):759-77.
- Blee, Kathleen M. 2002. Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2001. White Supremacy & Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Lynne Rienner.
- Dobratz, Betty and Stephanie Shanks-Meile. 2000. White Power, White Pride! The White Separatist Movement in the United States. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Futrell, Robert and Pete Simi. 2004. “Free Spaces, Collective Identity, and the Persistence of U.S. White Power Activism.” Social Problems 51(1):16-42.
- McVeigh, Rory. 2004. “Structured Ignorance and Organized Racism in the United States.” Social Forces 82(3):895-936.
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