The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teaching white supremacy in the age of the alt-right

To dismantle white supremacy, it's not enough to oppose it. We also have to study it.

A man holds a banner as people gather at Freedom Plaza in Washington on Sunday to protest the white supremacist Unite the Right rally held in front of the White House on the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. (Reuters/Leah Millis)

Sunday, a small Unite the Right rally took place in Washington, D.C., away from the Confederate monuments its organizer claimed to defend in Charlottesville. The new locale exposed the goal of white nationalism in 2018. It is not about the monuments. It is about translating an ideology of white supremacy into a social structure that imposes racial hierarchy on American society.

Last year, this goal meant rallying behind Confederate monuments, because they extol the virtues of the sort of active, concrete white supremacy that today’s white nationalists wish to resurrect. In New Orleans, one Confederate monument explicitly stated that “the national election [of] November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” In Colfax, La., where two monuments to white supremacy sit, one honors “those fighting for white supremacy in the Colfax riot of 1873” and the other celebrates “the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”

Statues are one thing, and their inscriptions say it all. But white nationalists today will continue to look for ways to act out their ideology and try to insinuate it into every aspect of American life. Why? Because white supremacists aren’t satisfied with stoking their ideology in secrecy behind closed doors, or even espousing it publicly. They want to force it upon American society and create a caste system that returns the United States to its shameful past.

Many Americans don’t realize how broad and pervasive white supremacy intends to be — and has been throughout American history. As an ideology, white supremacy evaluates American culture on two levels. On the most basic level, white supremacists seek to establish whites-only spaces, like pools, parks, schools, restaurants and neighborhoods. Along with controlling physical space, white supremacists also envision exclusively white ownership of abstract ideas, like knowledge and scholarship.

But white supremacy is not just about being genetically white (there is no such thing). Rather, it is about power. White supremacy governs through authoritarianism, establishing a racial hierarchy where whites always sit on top, paragons of scientific and cultural superiority.

White supremacy also defines “whiteness” incredibly narrowly. It doesn’t just aim to subjugate minorities. Rather, people can only qualify as white if they are straight, middle class or wealthy, well educated, pro-patriarchy or Christian. White supremacists are individualists who believe they know everything: they have the best facts, and they are destined for domination.

On the second level, white supremacy treats ideas and people outside of this limited paradigm as automatically inferior. According to the rhetoric of white supremacy, people of color will never be equal to white Americans, because whites set the standard for excellence, and people of color will never measure up.

Efforts to impose this vision throughout American history have had consequences in every realm of life, from politics to medicine to real estate.

Imposing white supremacy has required brutal violence both inside and outside the scope of law. Between 1888 and 1918, for example, 2,500 black men and women were killed by white lynch mobs, yet none of the killers were arrested or convicted. Whiteness trumped adherence to the law.

In addition to this violence, which aimed to police racial boundaries, white supremacy also demanded segregated spaces, because white supremacy hates racial mixture of any kind. For decades that meant residential segregation, as exemplified by the practice of redlining in major American cities, like Chicago. White banks made it a policy to refuse loans to black families seeking to move out of the inner city. For over 50 years banks drew red lines around predominantly black areas in the inner cities, outside of which black borrowers could not get mortgages.

White supremacy also forces its adherents to believe that people who don’t meet its norms cannot possibly be competent or capable in any aspect of life. And this belief must be acted upon to prevent their incompetence from staining society. Thus, for decades white supremacists believed that women of color were poor mothers of their children — indeed, that they should not been allowed to have children in the first place.

This thinking led doctors to forcibly sterilize Native American women as late as the 1970s, thanks to the century-old idea that Native Americans were noble savages. By some historical accounts, the Indian Health Service sterilized between 25 and 50 percent of Native American women between 1970 and 1976. The rationale: indigenous women did not know how to use birth control and their children were likely to be abandoned.

And white supremacy does not simply apply to racial minorities. From the 1920s through the 1970s, the eugenics movement targeted working-class women of all races. In fact, white supremacists argued that poor white women were racially impure.

If poor white women needed public assistance, even to help care for physically or intellectually challenged children, then they clearly violated the dictates of white purity. The legitimacy of eugenics was acknowledged in the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The practice of sterilizing young, unmarried women continued into the 1970s.

It is easy to find examples of white supremacy in our history because it has been a defining ideology and practice. And last summer, when white men in their 20s marched in Charlottesville chanting “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” white supremacy as a public practice was on display again.

But we are not powerless. We can and must make clear that there is no place for this philosophy in 21st century America.

As a professor of American history, I wanted to turn the study of white nationalism and white supremacy into teachable moments, so that students could understand that white supremacy was not an abstract philosophy, but rather a social structure that touched every aspect of American life. Last spring, I debuted a new course, “The History of White Supremacy in the United States, 1880 to 2017,” where students examined the rise of white supremacy and the forms it has taken in public policy.

The class relied on excavating evidence to understand the connection between belief and practice. Students researched the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and found that the fear of the Asian other was grounded in an economic insecurity acting as a handmaiden to racial violence. White supremacy played a role in the early years of World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned away hundreds of Jewish refugees and interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans.

The students ultimately concluded that white supremacy continues to generate the same ideological battle that caused the Civil War: Should and would this nation progress beyond its roots in slavery and white supremacy? White nationalists marched in Charlottesville to protect the memory of the Confederacy, and they drew from a deep well of white supremacist rhetoric. By transforming the institution of slavery into a rightful practice of racial hierarchy, white nationalists have extended the Civil War, and the white supremacy undergirding it for more than a century and a half.

The Unite the Right march in Charlottesville and the death of Heather Heyer shocked the nation, but they should not have come as a surprise. Removing the monuments rejects the obvious manifestations of white supremacy, but it is only a beginning. The Confederate monuments deserve a setting like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., which shows the painful legacy of lynching in conjunction with contemplation and action. Studying the history of white supremacy will help our country remember the true meaning civil rights and it will show us, as a nation, how to remove not just the bullhorn and the tiki torch, but also the law journal and the medical textbook, from those who actively seek to oppress others.