Guest post: We prefer to take our white supremacy like the wind and rain

Originally a comment by freedmenspatrol on The self-justifying loop.

It’s a simple formula: Ensure people can’t succeed, preferably by stealing success from them. Then pretend you have taken nothing. Look at them and see that they have achieved less. From inside that carefully-curated ignorance, which we built a culture to train us in from a very young age, it’s clear that those people just aren’t good enough. Maybe we mistreated them in the past, but we “fixed” all that in 1865, 1954, 1965, 2008, or some other year. The date doesn’t matter as long as it’s far enough in the past that we don’t feel implicated. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people literally tell me that black Americans are entirely to blame for their state, usually by some thinly-veiled proxy like “culture” as if that wasn’t just another way of saying that one’s skin color makes one inferior.

It’s like the people who did the things we wish to be seen condemning were just some strange force of nature.

They came, they pillaged, and vanished. They can’t have passed their ideas on. They can’t have had kids to inherit what they looted. They can’t have built a remarkably durable system for extracting wealth from the lives of others which not only outlasts them but also co-opts future generations into it. They certainly can’t have had a vested interest which inspired all of this. They must be some kind of white-hooded Satans, beings of incomprehensible evil which permit no explanation and so absolve us. They were irrationally evil, but we are innocent.

But they did have that interest. White Americans built a nation of great fortunes on the backs of slaves, among others, and it still pays out today. Every mistreatment and indignity drops at least a few pennies in our accounts. Being white makes us free from those abuses, immune, able to stand tall not despite the horrors we have inflicted and continue to inflict upon others but because of them.

It builds solidarity, because we know in our hearts that what happens to those people could never happen to us. It’s never our problem. There’s something Christian about it, though of course it speaks to far more universal conditions than a particular religion: by their torments we are made free. The planters invented Herrenvolk Democracy to maintain their control over poor whites as much as enslaved blacks. From that one can read it as absolutely self-serving and imagine the small farmers as just the victims of a con. I think that’s a mistake. The ideas did serve the planters individual selves, but also a kind of generalized white self in which all with the right skin could partake.

The yeoman farmers knew full well that they were not actually social equals and did not live in the kind of classless society which proslavery theorists extolled (This is where John C. Calhoun gets his nickname: Marx of the Master Class), but they also knew that their culture had a rank infinitely below them. Their white skin spared them the lash, the rapes, the spectacle of loved ones sold away on a moment’s notice. It’s a nasty, mean kind of freedom and did not enrich most of them materially, but delivered a generous helping of cultural returns. We don’t do this in all the ways we used to, but we continued many of them in different forms. Why wouldn’t we? We still get paid.

I don’t know a way out of this without white Americans losing both the literal and figurative plunder we extract from black Americans. Our ill-gotten gains are, after all, the point of the system. Proposed solutions always come with an escape hatch that lets most of the privilege remain, from sharecropping and convict leasing on down through Jim Crow and private segregation academies and their public equivalents. Most of us don’t even want to admit that we have built a nation where we have tremendous advantages, and scream bloody murder at even the slightest challenge to them. It’s who we are and it’s always easier to keep on as we have than to ask ourselves the hard questions. No amount of individual virtue or personal introspection will change that, but I don’t think most of us have ever even gone that far. We prefer to take our white supremacy like the wind and rain, just something that happens rather than something we do.

No need to speculate as to what the runaway feedback loop produces; we live there. We are the people that took fifty years and nine lives to move a flag that we’re still lying about.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    I don’t know a way out of this without white Americans losing both the literal and figurative plunder we extract from black Americans.

    Heavily progressive taxes on wealth, income, inheritance, and consumption, expended on education, health care, energy conservation, plowshares projects, urban and rural community revitalization, etc, would go a very long way in a generation or two – and without in themselves invoking (further) racial conflict.

    We have no real chance of this under the present hierarchies, but our deficit of positive prospects comes from the political status quo, not from a shortage of proven (the best from the Roosevelts & LBJ, to start with) populist policies.

  2. says

    Thank you, Ophelia and Saad.

    Pierce, I agree with all your policy suggestions but when we did things like that in the past the programs were deliberately structured to write African-Americans out of them. This is true of both the New Deal programs and the Great Society that followed. Unless they are excluded and left behind, the projects don’t get undertaken. Ta-Nehisi Coates goes into this in depth in his <a href="; title="The Case for Reparations". As class is often, by virtue of Herrenvolk Democracy, a proxy for race a great many Americans will see any project to help the disadvantaged as inherently “black”. That makes it both not for them and something they must oppose. That’s not all of us, but it’s generally enough of us.

    I don’t mean to be fatalistic here but the problem’s bigger than just getting good policy in place. So long as most white Americans see most black Americans as a them rather than an us, a different self they are free to act upon rather than part of the national self, we’re probably stuck. Pretending otherwise, as we have so often done with ostensibly “colorblind” programs plays into the racists’ game. I don’t want any more churches burned or lives ended in the name of racial conflict, but I don’t think we break the cycle without giving up some of what King called the negative peace of the absence of conflict, going through some strife, and coming out the end (we hope) with more of what he called the positive peace that comes from justice. If we can do it at all. It’s a hard thing to haul a civilization away from what it was built for.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    freedmenspatrol @ # 3: … when we did things like that in the past the programs were deliberately structured to write African-Americans out …

    Which is why I wrote “the best from the Roosevelts & LBJ” – some of what they did was genuinely color-blind (and, in Johnson’s case particularly, some explicitly aimed to redress old wrongs).

    Getting the beneficiaries of the crimes to admit the facts of the case might be psychologically satisfying, but I submit that won’t happen, in most cases, while said beneficiaries feel threatened by the movement(s) for amelioration. A class-based campaign that produces genuine security for the 99%, otoh, has potential to change things so that whites (and men, heteros, etc) might feel able to confront the actual history without putting up a wall of denialism as their first move.

  4. says

    This post is pretty much why I put impoliteness in my toolbox. Especially this bit,

    Most of us don’t even want to admit that we have built a nation where we have tremendous advantages, and scream bloody murder at even the slightest challenge to them.

    There is little to do when the screaming and foot-stamping starts but to overcome it, negate it or go around it. I’ve even considered looking into psychology as it relates to temper tantrums in children since I consider these things to be adult elaborations on identical behavior using identical systems.

  5. says

    I understand where you’re coming from, Pierce. But we’ve structured the system so that issues like poverty in black America are a world apart from poverty in white America. Doing an even adequate job will require some kind of acknowledgement of that, even if we had the good luck to find ourselves with foes who for the first time in our history missed that black Americans would benefit more than whites. The supposedly neutral programs we have today are regularly attacked in racist terms (“welfare queens” and their “welfare Cadillacs”, Santorum’s open admission that he would fight programs to help black people, etc) despite being slanted toward whites.

    And that’s before you into things like criminal justice reform. White supremacists are vigilant, determined, energetic, and creative. They’re also far better at the co-opting game than we will ever be. I’d like them to be asleep at the wheel, but they haven’t been yet.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    freedsmenspatrol @ # 6 – Good points.

    But getting a program that actually resolves serious social problems into practice will require both steamrollering the hardcore corporate/cultural right wing (aka Republicans®) and keeping the mushy middle from parroting their propaganda.

    So far the Sanders/Warren strategy of telling the latter, “Here’s what’s in it for you!” seems to get much better results than trying to build sympathy for victimized minorities – no matter how justified the latter case may be.

    We’ve had at least two generations that refuse to buy tickets for movies in which good guys shoot Indians, but even that previously-unpredictable reduction in racism has not translated into, e.g., better budgets for reservation clinics. A single-payer health care program, from which practitioners could expect bills to be covered no matter where, would probably address that issue (and many others besides), without giving the racist demagogues an opening to target minorities.

    Conversely, consider how hard the right tries to change Social Security into a means-tested project so that they can vilify it, as they do programs explicitly for the poor, as a “special-interest” boondoggle. Universal-benefit policies are much more popular than those attempting to redress specific harms.

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