Educate 8:46 Episode 2

What is White Supremacy?

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On this episode, Educate 8:46 tackles a deceptively simple, yet absolutely critical question. What is white supremacy?

It’s more than a term used to describe the behavior of white supremacist organizations. White supremacy can also be traced throughout the history of many systems, institutions, laws, and practices that have normalized the protection and empowerment of white elites above all others.

Additional Resources:

Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning

Carolyn Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

Joel Olson, The Abolition of White Democracy

Joe Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations

Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People

Read the transcript


Denise Taliaferro Baszile:

Hey, hey good people. I'm Denise Taliaferro Baszile, and this is Educate 8:46.

8 minutes and 46 seconds is the amount of time that officer Derrick Chauvin had his knee on the neck of George Floyd, draining the life from his body. So the premise of Educate 8:46 is simple -- what can we teach and learn that can support the struggle against white supremacy and anti-blackness, and all inter-systemic injustices in 8 minutes and 46 seconds?


Today on Educate 8:46 I want to tackle a deceptively simple and yet absolutely critical question: What is white supremacy? We rarely ask this question because everyone assumes that they know what it means, or, more specifically, we assume we are all referring to the same idea when we use it. In my experience, this is mostly not the case. In fact, most folks are using it to exclusively describe the behavior of white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, or white supremacist thinkers who profess the superiority of the Aaryan race and the degradation of all others.

Now, of course, these are the most explicit and crudest examples of white supremacy, but they are not the entirety of it, or even the most dangerous or devastating aspects, actually. In my circle of friends, associates who are scholars of race and racism, community organizers, and activists -- when we reference white supremacy, we are talking specifically about a logic that values whiteness in white people over all others, and a network of systems, institutions, laws, and practices that align with -- or rather manifest the logic -- primarily by privileging, protecting, and empowering white/elites over all others. Now before we start trying to bring up a bunch of negations, or examples that compare Oprah Winfrey to struggling white farmers. Let's break it down a bit.

First and foremost, we have to acknowledge and wrestle with the histories. We can't understand the development or impact or continued presence of white supremacy if we don't wrestle with the histories. I find this to be a huge hurdle sometimes because so many people either don't want to acknowledge the foundational history at all, or they align history too closely with what we like to imagine as the big T truth. History is, above all else, a craft. Historians go into archives. They mine information and artifacts from the past, and then they try to arrange them into a story that rings true. That seems to be the most accurate based on their read of the materials at hand. This means, however, that it's never free of the historian's interpretation, which is directly impacted by their own world views. This is why we have to seek understanding in and across histories, and not just an officially sanctioned history. Because it will inevitably exclude other perspectives on the same set of circumstances.

Because the officially sanctioned history in the US, as demonstrated in the school curriculum, for instance, is where most folks draw their understanding. We hear people, and in many cases, our leaders say things like, “slavery was the necessary evil,” as if it were a matter of fact, rather than a matter of interpretation. There are histories that suggest otherwise. That rumple and disrupt much of what we have been taught in the officially sanctioned “history.” There is history, for instance, that demonstrates that it actually would have been far more cost effective for the colonies to enslave other Europeans, as opposed to natives or Africans. There's history that suggests that Africans were in the so-called Americas long before Columbus arrived. There is history that shows how slave labor was used, not only on southern plantations, but also in building many things from the White House to Ivy League institutions.

So a critical read of our histories reveals that the seed of this idea of white supremacy was purposefully planted and leveraged by European colonizers, or, some would say, colonists. Many folks don't realize that the so-called pre-revolutionary Americas was inhabited by the indigenous, various groups of Europeans, and Africans. And in this slot of people, some were free. Some were indentured. And some were enslaved. But for the most part, they interacted. Sometimes they even married. There were no sharp and steadfast or, let's say, legalized racial divisions.

But all of this begins to change in the latter part of the 17th century when some colonists, or some would say colonizers, in power began to see the need to keep the poor and common folk from working together. This is when they begin to institute laws first forbidding miscegenation amongst the races. Particularly between those of European and African descent. As the years go on, more and more rights are taken from Africans, and more and more rights are given to those who would now collectively be referred to as white people. Eventually, the racial codes serve to expand and institutionalize the chattel slavery of Africans. And they rationalize it by narrating Africans as not quite human.

At the same time, a narrative of whiteness as superior, as deserving of rights, protections, and citizenship is used to keep poor whites beholden to the white elite. But this also often also keeps them poor. These dynamics work to secure wealth and democracy for some, but certainly not all. In the early republic, the lines were clearly drawn and there wasn't a whole lot of give and take on any side of the racial divide. Whiteness was seen as representing superior humanity. Nativeness as less human. And blackness as not quite human at all. These racial narratives were engineered and managed and passed on from one generation to the next. Not going away, but just adapting. Becoming more subtle and more complex in some ways.

So the race/class tyranny that is the foundation of American society continues to reproduce and spread inequity and injustice in ways that are as diverse as they are connected. This is what ties police brutality in black and brown communities to underpaid workers to struggling farmers to insatiable prison system to the separation of immigrant families to the dishonoring of native treaties to poor health care.

So the point about white supremacy is not that a black person can't make it like Oprah. But it's that 80 percent of black or brown or white or native will struggle to make ends meet. It's not that there aren't poor white people. It's that those who are getting the best of the best, who own the overwhelming majority of wealth in America, and make the overwhelming majority of decisions are a handful of elites. Mostly white and mostly men.

So the problem, ultimately, is that we can't get to the heart of the problem of injustice and equality or inequity without confronting the histories of white supremacy, without confronting our profane belief in the racialized human hierarchy that organizes our lives in ways that now, quite frankly, just seem normal.

Ibram X. Kendi "Stamped From the Beginning,” Carolyn Anderson in "White Rage,” Joel Olson in "The Abolition of White Democracy,” Joe Feagin in "Racist America,” Nell Irvin Painter in "The History of White People,” all offer compelling accounts of how whiteness and white supremacy emerge and operate.

We can trace the persistence, adaptation, and the power of this idea -- now ideology logic system -- right into the present moment. So the crux of today's lesson is to challenge ourselves not to be so beholden to the officially sanctioned history via the school curriculum. Question it, and seek out histories from multiple perspectives. Because until we do this, we won't be able to understand. We won't be able to wrap our heads around the power of white supremacy. Nor will we be able to reimagine our society outside of its grip, to reimagine our society in ways that renders more justice, more peace, more equity for more people, for all people. 


On the next episode, we will tackle the logic of white supremacy, and how it shapes our thinking in the everyday. Until then, thank you for listening to Educate 8:46 in the name of George Floyd and the thousands of others whose lives have been unjustly ended by the power of white supremacy.