White Supremacy Matters

In America, it Always Has

William Spivey
Jan 19 · 12 min read
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Photo by Little Plant on Unsplash

Make no mistake. White supremacy matters now and has ever since the founding of America. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn this. America was founded on the premise that the only ones that mattered were rich, white men. The case can and should be made that class and gender have always mattered, but that is not today’s topic.

Technically, the concept of a white race didn’t exist when what would become America was discovered by Europeans. Certainly, there was nationalism, but the idea of white people being a superior race didn’t come until later. Historians mark Bacon’s Rebellion as the turning point where white became a thing. Before Bacon’s Rebellion, the vast majority of Black people in the colonies were not enslaved but indentured servants. They held more or less the same status as white indentured servants that signed a seven-year contract to pay for their passage to the colonies. Of course, Black indentured servants often had their terms extended or were subject to a lifetime of servitude for real and imagined offenses. Nathaniel Bacon led an armed rebellion against Virginia Governor William Berkley. What created the need for the white race was when white indentured servants, Black indentured servants, and Black enslaved people united in following Bacon.

More than a few moments in history scared the rich, white men who held power. The Haitian Revolution and Nat Turner’s Rebellion were among them. White slaveholders always feared that enslaved people might turn on them; in many locales, whites were the minority and depended on slave patrols and militias to maintain order. But the thought of whites and Blacks of the underclass working together raised such concern that a way had to be found to divide them. White people were elevated to where the poorest white person was considered better than any Black person. They often became the overseers on the plantations, and white indentured servants were no longer a thing. Black indentured servants went away, too, as enslavement became the norm.

Bacon’s Rebellion began in 1675, but thirteen years earlier, the stage was set for what was intended to be the permanent enslavement of Black people. Partus Sequitur Ventrem was passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses, which changed how babies had been recognized previously by England and its colonies. Children born to Black enslaved women would follow the mother’s bloodline, leaving the father no responsibility and condemning the child of a female slave to be an enslaved person as well. If a white woman bore the child of a Black enslaved or free male (which did happen more frequently than you’d think). The woman was embarrassed or shunned, but the child was technically born free. Many of them were enslaved anyway or killed to coverup the paternity. The lucky father or whoever the woman pointed out might have been killed as well for having dared touch a white woman.

I’m skipping ahead a whole century during which white supremacy became firmly entrenched. Enslavement had totally replaced indentured servitude and was the foundation of the South’s economy and benefited the North. Those militias formed to control enslaved people would soon become police forces, they were the basis for the Second Amendment rights for those militia members to carry guns. The fear that abolitionists would either unarm the slave patrols or induct them into the military caused southerners to insist on enshrining their rights in the Constitution. That same Constitution set the stage for eliminating the international slave trade twenty years from its ratification in 1798. The purpose was not to gradually eliminate enslavement but to provide price protection for domestic slaves. It also meant an increased demand for domestic enslaved people, which was met by forced breeding, often via rape.

The Constitution wasn’t finished establishing the superiority of white people. It gave us the three-fifths provision which counted an enslaved person worth less than a white person when establishing representation. Those Black people didn’t actually vote themselves as that privilege was generally reserved for rich, white men. We also got the Electoral College, which was effectively affirmative action for white people, designed to ensure those opposing slavery couldn’t outvote the slave states.

Skipping ahead again to just before the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which wasn’t quite as wondrous as people now believe. The proclamation didn’t free all enslaved people—just those in states that seceded from the Union. The move was designed to disrupt the South's economy and keep foreign powers Britain and France from partnering with the Confederacy, with whom they still had trade ties. Lincoln firmly believed in white people's superiority, as demonstrated many times in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.

“I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” Abraham Lincoln

A few things happened in rapid succession that changed America forever. On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which freed all enslaved people, except those being punished for a crime and those in the Confederacy who didn’t acknowledge Union laws. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomatox, effectively ending the Civil War though it didn’t officially end for another month. Six days after Lee’s surrender, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head while at Ford’s Theatre while watching a play. He died the next morning across the street at the Petersen House. His killer, John Wilkes Booth, was an avid supporter of slavery. White supremacy does not go quietly into the night.

There was a brief period where white supremacy was on the decline. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 outlined the requirements the rebel states had to meet to rejoin the Union. They had to each write a new constitution, approved by a majority of voters, including Black ones. They had to ratify the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which freed the slaves and gave them the right to vote. These new laws were enforced by federal troops who protected the freedmen somewhat from the Ku Klux Klan that formed in 1865 to enforce in the dark what white people ceded in the daytime.

State governments appealed to Congress for help, and they passed three enforcement acts, including the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Crimes that states and local governments wouldn’t prosecute (lynching, beating, and voter suppression) were now federal crimes with troops nearby to enforce them. Black men began to get elected to Congress and even won statewide elections in Mississippi. Reconstruction was promoted by and enforced by the Republican Party, which was born of the abolition movement. They were for Black people until they weren’t.

In 1876, there was a contested presidential election that the Democrat Tilden should have won by all appearances. He was one vote shy of the votes needed in the Electoral College and won the popular vote with two state's results contested. Republicans still controlled Congress, and if Tilden won, he would have difficulty getting legislation passed. A compromise was reached, which resulted in Republican Rutherford B. Hayes being elected as president with the understanding all federal troops would be removed from the South. Hayes kept his end of the bargain and later enacted Posse Comitatus, which ensured those troops could never return. This effectively ended Reconstruction. The Black representatives to Congress were either forced to resign, serve out their terms, and not run again or defeated at the ballot box as Black voters were mostly unable to vote. Sometimes white supremacy is defined by looking the other way when injustice occurs as long as it doesn’t happen to you.

Jim Crow became the law of the land and not just in the South either. Laws designed to replicate slavery, dictate housing, and sometimes force employment under the very same people once their owners. The Klan had been almost crushed in the 1870s but returned in 1915. The Great Migration saw Black people move to northern cities for better employment. Still, redlining and housing discrimination forced most of the six million Black migrants into ghettoes in northern cities.

By that time, police forces had evolved from slave patrols. In the South, they primarily tended to the formerly enslaved people and their descendants. In the North, they controlled the Black migrants and the immigrants that would soon enough be allowed to be white as there weren’t enough regular white people to still be supreme. Abraham Lincoln and others predicted that when Black people were no longer enslaved, there would be resentment. Indeed they were when they discovered freedom didn’t mean what they hoped it did, and they were still bound by many of the same rules.

By 1920, women had the right to vote in their first presidential election after the Nineteenth Amendment passage. The Klan was nearing their peak membership of four million people. Women and Blacks voting was apparently too much, so they doubled down on preventing Black men and women from voting. In Florida, there was a statewide conspiracy among Democrats to suppress Black votes. When July Perry and Mose Norman tried to vote in Ocoee, Florida (outside of Orlando). A white mob that included law enforcement officials killed Perry, shot and killed many Ocoee Black residents, and burned out the rest. Ocoee was an all-white town for the next forty years.

“At the time that I visited Ocoee, the last colored family of Ocoee was leaving with their goods piled high on a motor truck with six colored children on top. White children stood around and jeered the Negroes who were leaving, threatening them with burning if they did not hurry up and get away. These children thought it a huge joke that some Negroes had been burned alive.” Walter White — NAACP

Law enforcement and the military have always been infiltrated by and often led by white supremacists. In 1921, the Black Wall Street area in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was attacked by a white mob after the alleged assault of a white woman in an elevator. The coordinated attack included bombs dropped from the air by the National Guard. Thirty-five blocks were destroyed, and at the time of this writing, mass graves are being uncovered as Tulsa finally decided to look for them. In 1923, the Black residents of Rosewood, Florida, were attacked; the story was recounted in a 1997 film. These are but a few of the massacres of Black people perpetrated by whites during the period. Universally true is that no one was prosecuted when Black families were destroyed; their land and businesses were taken by white people because they could. In 1926 in Washington D.C., long before the Million Man March, the 50,000 Klan March was well received. The Klan held open recruitment events, conducted Klan weddings, and in some areas was listed in the phone book. Perhaps this was the era of greatness Donald Trump is wistful about?

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In the 1870s, it was a targeted effort to wipe out the Klan that stifled them. The Great Depression crushed the KKK. People unable to feed themselves could not pay the ten-dollar membership fee, and they soon faded away. Like the South, they rose again to fight against civil rights and perpetually engage in voter suppression. What got their ire up was the integration of the armed forces, which also started the drift from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party as it was Democrat Harry S. Truman who issued the executive order. Truman was rumored to have been a KKK member, but as many people said he wasn’t as he was. The major blow to white supremacists was when Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act after the Bloody Sunday events that were nationally televised. The Klan knew to ride at night, Bull Connor and the Selma police acted with impunity in the daytime, making America nervous.

In the 1960s, the Southern Strategy was in full effect by the Republican Party. Democrats, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, were actively recruiting Black voters, and Republicans were trying to make America afraid of Black people. They suddenly became the party of voter suppression. It was as if the party’s decided to switch places. Not out of ideology but because of political expediency. The Republican Party utilized the Southern Strategy to elect Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H. W, Bush, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump. The Republican Party got almost all the Black vote during Reconstruction but had now become almost exclusively white.

White supremacy had become the roadmap to victory. America was sufficiently afraid of “Willie Horton,” “welfare queens,” and “super-predators,” that it ramped up both mass incarceration and voter suppression. Donald Trump became the personification of white supremacy with his attacks on everybody of color. It would be gratuitous of me to remind everyone that his company refused to rent to Black people in his younger days, marking their applications “C” for colored so they would be rejected. I can be petty, so I threw that in there. He also took out a full-page ad advocating the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who, by the way, were innocent. Think Donald Trump apologized?

Trump’s biggest accomplishment was making it possible for white supremacists to throw away their robes and come out of their racist closets. He appointed openly white nationalists to his staff. At one time, Steve Bannon was his Chief Advisor, and Stephen Miller wrote his speeches and developed his immigration policy. Miller (and Jeff Sessions) were chiefly responsible for throwing brown children in cages and separating them from their families, some forever. The Klan is far less of a presence today, but they have been joined by the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, and literally hundreds of other hate groups across the country. The SPLC documented 940 groups in 2019, most of them bunched in states led by Republicans. Many of them came together in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, which led to a clash killing one woman and two State Police Officers. White supremacists were chanting, “our blood, our soil,” and, “you will not replace us.” President Trump said there were, “good people on both sides.”

Charlottesville was the precursor to what happened on January 6, 2020, at the Capitol. The Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, and many of the others joined forces with non-affiliated racists. They stormed the building, seeking to overturn the election and kill a few elected leaders along the way. For the first time in American history, the Confederate flag was paraded through the Capitol rotunda. Instead of being horrified, Trump was giddy. The racist groups are using the news coverage and videos to recruit and fundraise. They promised this isn’t over, and I believe them.

It’s important to note that Congress across several administrations has failed to acknowledge white supremacists groups' threat. They have covered up the extent of their threat and refused to address the coming storm. In 2006 the FBI warned of white supremacist infiltration of police forces, but nothing happened. Twice in a five-year period, a Florida town ousted police force members for membership in the Klan. Racist emails among police officers have been uncovered within forces across the nation, including Los Angeles, Miami, Ferguson, San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere. The Department of Homeland Security delayed the release of a report for months, outlining the threat of the increasing number of white supremacist groups. They finally released it in October of 2020. Since the release of the report, Congress has done nothing.

White supremacy has always existed in America. In fact, it defines America. We send people worldwide and shame them for human rights violations yet do nothing to address our own. Demographics is working against those with white supremacist views. White people are projected to be a minority in America by 2045. It’s why our immigration policy is attempting to turn back the clock and why voter suppression of minorities is again at the forefront of Republican policy (though once it was the Democrats' way). One true thing across the history of this nation is that white supremacy has mattered. It’s time to make that no longer true.

The Polis

Thought-provoking articles on politics, philosophy, and…

William Spivey

Written by

Writer, poet, wannabe philosopher. I write about politics, history, race, and social justice. Support me at https://ko-fi.com/williamfspivey0680

The Polis

The Polis

Thought-provoking articles on politics, philosophy, and policy

William Spivey

Written by

Writer, poet, wannabe philosopher. I write about politics, history, race, and social justice. Support me at https://ko-fi.com/williamfspivey0680

The Polis

The Polis

Thought-provoking articles on politics, philosophy, and policy

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