White Supremacy: What it is and How it Operates

“If you don’t understand white supremacy, what it is and how it operates, everything you think you understand will only confuse you.” Neely Fuller, Jr.

I’ve heard the words “White supremacy” more in the past week than at any point in my life. Which is saying a lot, since I majored in Africana Studies in college.

Most people have no real idea what the phrase means or how it works in society. It’s easy to spot individual White supremacists when mobs of White people carry Tiki torches, screaming “White Power!” It’s harder to understand the more dangerous system of White supremacy. White supremacy is basically a concept White people created to justify slavery and to funnel resources and benefits to themselves at the expense of non-White people. The belief is far more dangerous than the mobs of racists because the belief literally shapes our society.

Photo Credit – Washington Post

At its core, White supremacy is two beliefs in one:

  1. the belief that Whiteness and anything associated with it is superior while Blackness and anything associated with it is inferior; and
  2. due to their superiority, White people should dominate society.

These beliefs serve as the general rules for the color caste system in America Western society.

How White Supremacy Began

Before deciding to “always bet on Black” for slavery, White people tried forcing Native Americans and poor Europeans into some form of slave labor too. But Native people knew the geography better than White people and frequently escaped bondage. Indentured servitude (a system where typically poor Europeans got a free trip to America if they agreed to work for a few years after they arrived) was expensive and quickly fell out of favor.

Soon, most of the people performing forced labor on land White people stole from Native Americans, tended to be African or of African descent. This significantly changed how White people determined who could be a slave.

This was also complicated because White people were busily creating AMERICA: a country based on “freedom and justice for all.” Obviously, slave labor was a glaring contradiction. But by this point, White people were addicted to the financial benefits of slavery. Whether one owned slaves or not, the sheer wealth generated by slave money fueled virtually every aspect of the national economy.

Photo Credit: The Root

To justify slavery in the land of the free, American power brokers and slave owners needed to change the country’s beliefs—their presumptions—about the humanity of African people. That’s where White Supremacy came in.

Presumptions: How White People became White Supremacists

“When a society forms around any institution, as the South did around slavery, it will formulate a set of arguments to support it.” – The Southern Argument for Slavery

“Jefferson, like all slaveholders and…other white members of American society, regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property.” – The Smithsonian Magazine

Presumptions are ideas you accept as true without needing proof. For example, in the criminal justice system (if you’re White), you are believed, or presumed, to be innocent until someone can prove your guilt. To justify enslaving Africans for life, American power brokers worked aggressively to change their society’s collective presumptions about the very humanity of Black people. These beliefs were rampant: “[d]uring the days of American slavery, many whites held stereotypes of blacks as inferior, unevolved, and apelike.”

Photo credit: Noire Histoir

White people justified slavery by insisting that Africans weren’t actually people, rather they were more like beasts of burden. To convince the broader White society that this was true, White people used White supremacy and racism as marketing tools in a PR campaign to support slavery. In his book Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, media mogul Tom Burrell said:

To justify slavery, White leaders designed “an effective marketing campaign created to not only force the institution of slavery to fit within the budding democracy, but one aimed at convincing both master and slave that blacks had always been and would forever be mentally, physically, spiritually, and culturally inferior. It was as though the original colonial elites hired a PR agency to sell the concept that Africans were innately inferior and it was indeed completely justifiable to treat them as subhuman beasts.”

This “Black skin equals inferior nonhuman” marketing campaign and White people’s growing dependency on slave labor shifted basic presumptions about who counted as human. Motivated by racist ideas like the “White Man’s Burden,” White people convinced themselves that it was their duty (as the superior race) to dominate and enslave darker, “primitive savages.” Soon, presumptions about the superiority of White people and the inferiority of Black people were ingrained in the American psyche—and were then codified into law and social norms. White people adopted policies like the three-fifths compromise and other regulations that locked Black people into the bottom rung of society on local, city, state and federal levels.

White people spread the message of White supremacy and Black inferiority in White church sermons and in White classrooms. They “validated” White supremacy with White scientific research and protected White supremacy with White laws.

Whiteness now meant “supreme” and White people believed it.

Was The Great Emancipator a White Supremacist? Why yes, yes he was.

Even White people who thought slavery was wrong, still believed in White supremacy. Like The Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

That’s all White supremacy is: White people’s made-up belief that they are superior because they said so and that superiority gives them the right to dominate society (plus…they have the guns to prove it). This belief is a guiding principle: it underlies laws and determines resource allocation. It is the default position from which White people make decisions of any kind whatsoever.

That’s how individual White supremacy shapes society.

Presumptions: How White Supremacy Shaped Black People

But they couldn’t stop there. It wasn’t enough to just convince White people that Blacks were of lower value. As it turns out kidnapped Africans still believed in their own humanity and resisted slavery. So much so, that their rebellion constantly threatened the success of the entire evil experiment. To keep slavery going, White people worked feverishly to also convince the masses of Black people that their slave status was unquestionable. This is where the process known as “slave conditioning” came in: constant physical and mental violence so extreme that it forced millions of independent African people to submit to oppression.

Slave conditioning and the law ensured African people were surrounded with social structures, messages and a never-ending stream of violence that reinforced the concept of African inferiority.
See a White woman walking down the street? If you were Black, you better step aside, now. Did a White man ask you a question? You better answer with your eyes looking down to show him respect. Did a White child give you an order? Regardless of your age, if you were Black, you better comply. Caught with a book? Better pray like hell you weren’t killed for it. Did you show irritation or frustration, or otherwise make White people uncomfortable? Better hide it quickly…or face consequences.

Constant consequences.

Any infraction—any single violation of thousands of rules designed to preserve slavery—could result in torture, rape, being sold away from your family, death or worse. White people also ensured their laws punished other Whites who helped enslaved Africans. They taught their children to replicate this system by teaching them the necessity of torture to maintaining the slave system. White voters, their elected officials, the laws they passed, and the social customs they embraced all centered on preserving White supremacy and keeping Black people enslaved.

Naturally, Black people were (and still are) targeted with those same messages of White superiority and Black inferiority. Due to the nature of slavery, Black people were particularly vulnerable to this racist PR campaign. How could they not be?

They couldn’t use the historical record to remember the legacy of African historic greatness because reading could literally cost you your eyes if not your life.

They couldn’t go to churches or houses of worship to learn the truth. Most communities regulated and monitored the types of religious messages that could be preached to Black congregations.

They couldn’t turn to stories from their homelands to counter the lies that said Blacks were inferior either. Slave masters prohibited them from speaking their home languages and tried to sever all connections with the cultural stories and belief systems they brought with them. To keep slavery profitable, White people barred Black people from turning to the very cultural tools that could have helped them cope with the trauma.

This is how White supremacy began in this country. It is still with us today.

Systems v. Individuals

A well functioning system will always be more powerful than the individuals within it. The system of White supremacy is more dangerous than the individual White terrorists who descended on Charlottesville.  In order to win, we must address both sides of this racist coin. Resist the urge to only focus on the racist mobs or on tearing down statues of racist people. It is the system that needs our attention now. As noted by White author Robert Medwed:

“The idea that we’re entitled to something simply because we’re white — or that we didn’t get something simply because we’re white — is what lies at the very heart of white supremacy…When we wanted to see the world, we didn’t just explore, we conquered it and colonized it. When we came to America, one of the first things we did was import slaves. When our ability to own slaves was threatened, we literally started a war to keep them. We tore the country apart because of our entitlement. And once we lost the war? We instituted a system of laws designed to ensure white supremacy.  We’ve dedicated centuries of action to keeping black people oppressed.”

That is the system we’re up against today. That is the system that motivates those Tiki torch carrying White boys. We’d better get ready.


Lurie Daniel Favors, Esq. is an author, attorney and the general counsel at a racial-justice law center in Brooklyn, N.Y.  Get your copy of her e-book, “Afro State of Mind: Memories of a Nappy Headed Black Girl” here! Follow her on Twitter, or Instagram, “like” Afro State of Mind on Facebook or catch up on her latest Youtube videos!

Opinions expressed here belong to Afro State Of Mind(tm) only and do not represent those of any other institution.

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