Written August, 2017
It is not difficult to see that a phenomenon like “white supremacy” represents a profound form of human brokenness. This can be seen in both moral-spiritual and historical perspectives.
In moral and spiritual terms, one need merely ask: what kind of psychological space must people live in for the superiority of their race to be the central belief and the main motivating force in their political life?
Even if it were true that one’s own race was “superior” in some way to another race, no people who were well put-together would feel impelled to proclaim that superiority in a way that expresses hostility and contempt for others of flesh and blood and human feeling.
That runs directly contrary to the kind of wholeness Jesus encouraged when he taught “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). That “Golden Rule” engenders an entirely different kind of community from the one fostered by the white supremacist who treats another race in a way he would not tolerate for himself—forcing those others, to whom he claims superiority, into second class citizenship and deprivation, imposed by intimidation and (as in the age of lynchings) by terror.
Where did this form of human brokenness come from?
Part of the answer will be in general terms, involving the kind of upbringing of children that inflicts psychological wounds that drives people to seek out conflict and to assert their dominance over some “out-group.” This we see happening at times and places throughout history and across the world.
But the case of “white supremacy” in America also has its own specific historic roots.
From the beginnings of our history, there was not only the general difficulty that flawed people have with respecting people who are different from themselves. In addition, there formed an economy and society where wealth and power were achieved through a system of chattel slavery, where one race used another race as an especially capable form of livestock.
While there are some people who are simply amoral, and will permit themselves to do whatever best serves their selfish desires, most human beings feel a need to justify what they do. That’s how it was in the self-identified Christian culture of the South, where property in the form of slaves represented the majority of the region’s wealth, and where slave-holders with large plantations worked by slaves formed the ruling elite.
The notion of white supremacy developed to provide moral support for the region’s defining (its “peculiar”) institution.
The supremacist argument faced not only the challenge of reconciling with Christian ethics, it also faced the challenge of reconciling with the foundational values of the American nation, according to which (as Thomas Jefferson wrote in The Declaration of Independence) “all men are created equal.”
On the eve of the Civil War, Alexander Stephens – a relative moderate who would soon become the Vice President of the Confederate States of America – could attempt to argue the moral rightness of the idea. But he was compelled to repudiate as false the American idea of equality.
In contrast with the United States, Stephens said, the Confederacy
is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Clearly, for the slave-holding class, the “great…moral truth” of white superiority was a belief of supreme importance—worth breaking up the nation, worth fighting a bloody war, to maintain — because this belief permitted the dominant elite to maintain not only their power and wealth but also their sense of their own righteousness.
That doesn’t explain how the idea of “white supremacy” became so important to the great majority of people in the region who were not made rich and powerful by the subordination of black people. This is a matter that has been much studied, and what emerges from the history is an ingenious ideology the slave-holders instilled into the belief systems of the poorer whites.
The gist of it was the notion that the few rich whites and the many poorer whites were allies, both given important and superior status by virtue of their whiteness. The pay-off for the poor whites was that no matter how strained and impoverished their own condition, there was a whole class of people on whom they were encouraged to look down. And whatever their frustrations, there was a whole race of people on whom they were encouraged to take out the anger provoked by those frustrations, pushing them down to keep them in their place.
The additional pay-off for the rich elite was that the sowing of division between the downtrodden of both races kept those groups from joining together to demand a greater share of the wealth and power in the society they shared.
It has worked that way for generations, and it does still.
What history has instilled over many generations, and with pay-offs so fundamental to buttressing a social order and to meeting the emotional needs of some whites, does not quickly disappear.
People and societies can become more whole. Civil rights legislation can come – albeit a century after the Constitution was amended to require “equal protection of the laws.” An American man with a black father might be elected by the American electorate (and by comfortable margins) to the presidency—twice.
But the patterns of thinking and feeling ingrained deep into the culture do not just disappear overnight. They may subside, but they endure like grey embers that, if blown upon by demagogic leadership, can flame up again.