We’ve heard the argument over and over. “Of course we’re in a post-racial society; racism is over; slavery is long gone; the president is black, etc.” And then we’ve heard the counterargument over and over. “Post-racial?! How can that be the case when health disparities remain significant along racial lines? When unemployment and incarceration continue to disproportionately affect people of color, etc.?”
However, what both arguments fail to admit, and what the media refuse to acknowledge (although they fan the flames as well as anybody), is that racism has gotten worse over the decades.
Why and how has it gotten worse? And how can we realistically remedy a problem if we cannot call it for what it really is? If we don’t understand exactly what racism is and where it comes from, how can we expect to live in a society of true equality? The disheartening truth is that we can’t.
Understanding the supremacist framework
Unfortunately, racism has been defined in a superficial way. Racism tends to get looked at as a set of prejudiced beliefs or attitudes toward racial or ethnic groups. However, the idea that racism is limited to individual thought and behavioral patterns does a disservice to the examination of its structural roots; this, in turn, works brilliantly to perpetuate racism because it avoids deeper mainstream analysis.
Sociologically speaking, though, racism refers to the systemic, structural, institutional or ideological disparity in the allocation of social and material rewards, benefits, privileges, burdens and disadvantages based on race. That includes access to resources, capital, property (which affect life chances) and possession of social power and influence.
Going even farther down the rabbit hole, racism is built on the framework of racial supremacy. Racial supremacy refers to the systemic, structural, institutional and ideological racial base that our contemporary society operates within. All interaction among participating members or structures of the society becomes racialized. If and when we find disparate and discriminatory outcomes within the frame of racial supremacy, then we’ve got ourselves a good ol’ case of racism.
Specifically, white supremacy is the form of racial supremacy that we operate under in America. The white supremacist framework has been set in place for centuries, yet it doesn’t get much critical attention in the media or in the overall social structure. And therein lies the root of the problem to which racism is tied. White supremacy is a social framework, which means that its basis is fluid, not rigid. Its power lies in its amorphous ability, its ability to change “faces.” It expresses itself via different social and structural modalities. The only thing that actually changes is the systemic form that white supremacy portrays takes (through which order and control is maintained). For example, we went from the system of slavery to the system of Jim Crow to the contemporary system of colorblind racism and mass incarceration. Throughout all of these changes in form, the fundamental centralization and concentration of racial power has not shifted. In fact, it has only gotten stronger.
Consider what has taken place in the past few months. The Supreme Court has struck down key portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; affirmative action measures that aim to reduce discrimination in college acceptance are being threatened; surveillance and policing of black youths is becoming more rampant; and Trayvon Martin and many other similar young people have been killed because of intensified racial anxieties. Consider also all of the other economic, educational and health disparities that are particularly experienced by people of color.
White supremacy is stronger now is because it operates under the guise that it doesn’t exist and that race is no longer an issue in America. So certain rationales become justified in stopping and frisking targeted black youths for nonracial “suspicion” reasons. Or if black unemployment is disproportionately high, it must be the result of a lack of trying because race is not an issue. Therefore policies meant to guard against employment discrimination may no longer be needed. In actuality, these rationales are highly racialized, and they do become institutionalized. They divert attention from larger, more complex forms of covert control. In this way, a hyper-racist social environment has been constructed whereby the distribution of social and material advantage and disadvantage has become severely disproportionate under the assumption that race is no longer a factor in racially inequitable outcomes.
Once we understand what the racial framework of white supremacy is and how it operates, then we can begin to see how contemporary racism works. They are inextricably linked. From that point, it may be possible to mobilize, contest and transform the racial platform and live in a racially equitable environment.
We cannot simply keep advocating for policy change and political change, because racism has gotten worse in the past two centuries. And clearly, white supremacy is flexible and adaptable in keeping the conditions necessary for it to flourish. Therefore, it may suit us to create a social rift of sorts that white supremacy cannot adapt to. And that rift can begin with raising individual consciousness as well as simple, everyday gestures that reject the racial status quo. If people of all racial, ethnic, cultural and social delineations come together and redefine their relationships to each other on the basis of unity rather than division, then the social framework will have no choice but to change and morph into a structure of true equality.
Rejecting systems of inequality
If the framework of white supremacy disproportionately affords benefits and privileges to those in the dominant group, what incentive would there be for the dominant group to abandon it? Why would anyone in their right mind bite the hand that feeds them?
The answer lies in the fact that white supremacy – just like any other social structure – does not simply exist in a vacuum. It exists in relation to many other social frameworks and structures in an intersectional manner. And when we begin to fit the pieces of this intersectional puzzle together, we begin to see exactly why there is a severe disunity of people based on race (as well as other social identities) in the first place. The circumstances and consequences of white supremacy are no coincidence.
White supremacy has a history of intersecting with social class, which has been utilized as a tool, of sorts, to maintain prevailing social and economic power interests. White supremacy was created as means for a powerful Eurocentric elite to exploit the labor power of black slaves (as well as poor whites) and quell any possibility of people with a common class status from realizing their commonality by creating the constructed delineation or division of race. As time progressed, the economic system of capitalism came into fruition and developed a harmonious marriage between itself and white supremacy, which aimed to exploit all people regardless of race, but granted whites dominant group status and the illusion that they were truly part of the “in” crowd.
To this day, white supremacy acts as the white knight of capitalism. It acts as a specialized type of guardian or warden of the economic elite by keeping the majority of the population fractured along racial lines. In this way, it works to cover up the social ramifications of the crises that capitalism inherently produces. So if we are living in a time of hyper-capitalism (or hyper-appropriation of value), then it would make perfect sense for white supremacy to create this environment of hyper-racism. It is done through a plethora of ways mentioned earlier, but one specific way hyper-racism is generated is by fueling white racial anxiety through accentuating and amplifying a false narrative of “otherness.” It creates this sense of an “in” crowd and an “out” crowd, of the need to be protect the values and attributes of the “in” crowd at all costs from “deviant outsiders.” In this way, the perspectives of individual dominant group members (as well as all members of the population) can continue to be manipulated for the purposes of disunity and dominant economic interests. Severe economic inequality that affects all people of all social identities calls for extreme methods that must be implemented to distract the masses of people from realizing the overwhelming commonality that they share with each other.
So white supremacy offers temporary, specious benefits and privileges to dominant group members, which will run out when this hyper-capitalist economy spins itself off the edge of the cliff. Dominant group members will feel the sting of the divorce between capitalism and white supremacy once they begin to lose the protective facade of whiteness (that they may or may not have even known they had) to the reality of disastrous economic conditions.
The sooner we all come to grips with this reality, the less of a sting we will feel when we begin to detach ourselves from these dominant frameworks. The sooner we all begin to reject these systems of inequality (that were doomed from the start), the sooner we can begin to construct alternative systems of equality and unity. We must cease consenting to systems that are designed to exploit human beings and the planet itself – and start supporting systems that are conducive to harmony and thriving possibility. The only way to get there is by renouncing the restrictive and oppressive structures we’ve been placed in and by realizing the common unity that we all share. Seeing through the divisions that have been assigned to us is the social rift we need that none of the dominant structures will be able to adapt to. Together, we can get it done.