The History of White Supremacy

A Sociological Definition

Altar with K eagle in black robe at a meeting of nearly 30,000 Ku Klux Klan members from Chicago and northern Illinois.
Altar with K eagle in black robe at a meeting of nearly 30,000 Ku Klux Klan members from Chicago and northern Illinois. Wikimedia Commons

Historically, white supremacy has been understood as the belief that white people are superior to people of color. As such, white supremacy was the ideological driver of the European colonial projects and U.S. imperial projects: it was used to rationalize unjust rule of people and lands, theft of land and resources, enslavement, and genocide.

During these early periods and practices, white supremacy was backed by misguided scientific studies of physical differences on the basis of race and was also believed to take intellectual and cultural form.

(For detailed and riveting historical accounts of how white supremacy was wielded in pursuit of economic, political, cultural, and social domination by Europeans from the 1500s on, see The World is a Ghetto by sociologist Howard Winant, and Orientalism by postcolonial theorist Edward Said.)

The system of white supremacy was brought to the Americas by European colonists and took firm root in early U.S. society through the genocide, enslavement, and internal colonization of indigenous populations, and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants. (For information on how white supremacy historically affected indigenous populations, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, as well as immigrants from Asia, see sociologist Tomás Almaguer's book Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California). The system of slavery in the U.S., the Black Codes that limited rights among newly freed blacks that were instituted following emancipation, and the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation and also limited rights combined to make the U.S. a legalized white supremacist society through the late-1960s.

During this period the Ku Klux Klan became a well-known symbol of white supremacy, as have other major historical actors and events, like the Nazis and the Jewish Holocaust, the apartheid regime of South Africa, and Neo-Nazi and white power groups today.

As a result of the notoriety of these groups, events, and time periods, many people think of white supremacy as an overtly hateful and violent attitude toward people of color, which is considered a problem mostly buried in the past.

But as the recent racist murder of nine Black people at Emanuel AME church has made clear, the hateful and violent breed of white supremacy is still very much a part of our present.

Yet, it is important to recognize that white supremacy today is a multifaceted system that manifests in myriad ways, many not overtly hateful nor violent--in fact often quite subtle and unseen. (Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva investigates this phenomenon at length in his book White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era). This is the case today because U.S. society was founded, organized, and developed in a white supremacist context. White supremacy and the many forms of racism it employs is infused into our social structure, our institutions, our world views, beliefs, knowledge, and ways of interacting with each other. It's even encoded into some of our holidays, like Columbus Day, which celebrates a racist perpetrator of genocide.

The white supremacy of our society is evident in the fact that whites maintain a structural advantage over people of color in nearly every aspect of life. White people maintain an educational advantage, an income advantage, a wealth advantage, and a political advantage.

White supremacy is also evident in the way communities of color are systematically over-policed (in terms of unjust harassment and unlawful arrest and brutalization), and under-policed (in terms of police failing to serve and protect); and in the way that experiencing racism takes a societal-wide negative toll on the life expectancy of Black people. These trends and the white supremacy they express are fueled by the false belief that society is fair and just, that success is the result of hard work alone, and an overall denial of the many privileges that whites in the U.S. have relative to others.

Further, these structural trends are fostered by the white supremacy that lives within us, though we may be wholly unaware that it is there. Both conscious and subconscious white supremacist beliefs are visible in social patterns that show, for instance, that university professors give more attention to potential students who are white; that many people regardless of race believe that lighter skinned Black people are smarter than those with dark skin; and that teachers punish Black students more harshly for the same or even lesser offenses committed by white students.

So while white supremacy might look and sound different than it has in centuries past, and may be experienced differently by people of color, it is very much a twenty-first-century phenomenon that must be addressed through critical self-reflection, the rejection of white privilege, and anti-racist activism.