Donald Trump’s campaign of 2016 revealed something many of us already knew. Before any pundits thought he had a chance, thousands and thousands of white people turned out to his rallies. Their cheers turned to howls and jeers as Trump encouraged violence against protesters and spat dog-whistle racism about the city of Chicago. Twice on the campaign trail, Trump told a story about a U.S. general said to have executed a group of would-be “Muslim terrorists” by dipping bullets in pig’s blood and shooting them one by one. He told the apocryphal tale in gory detail while crowds in Charleston, South Carolina and Dayton, Ohio, cheered him on.
Still more has been unveiled in 2017. Open white supremacists like Richard Spencer and David Duke, racist dog-whistlers like Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions, and many others continue to cheer the president on in his efforts to close the borders to Muslims and Latinos, end the Justice Department’s actions against abusive police forces and prisons, and humiliate Black athletes while neglecting death and destruction in Puerto Rico. This is not just coded racism, but real policy and publicity efforts that have direct effects for Black and brown people in the U.S.
What it reveals, that so many already knew, is that white supremacy is still winning elections and dividing the country.
It should go without saying that the history of white supremacy is deeply connected to the American South. Neither interpersonal nor institutional racism is unique to our region, and yet the South is uniquely inextricable from white supremacist machinations—from slavery to secession, the founding of the White Knights to the development of “states rights” strategies to defang anti-discrimination laws, from Jim Crow to mass incarceration.
As a Southern publication, Scalawag cannot shy away from these truths. The South has got problems. But it’s also got solutions. The South is also home to some of the fiercest and most successful opponents of structural racism—Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hammer, John Lewis, and others. These Southern leaders saw up close the decapitating effects of racist policies on their communities and dedicated themselves to realizing the rights of Black Americans and battling white supremacy. It is our responsibility to shed light on the folks who continue their fight for a more empowered and equitable South.
Today, Scalawag is announcing plans to cover these developments and profile Southerners fighting against white supremacy. You can find more details and join the conversation, at our Combating White Supremacy initiative. In this editorial, we want to explain our understanding of white supremacy, how it has been institutionalized in Southern and national journalism, and how we plan to attack it.
What do we mean when we say white supremacy?
Let’s start with some notes about terminology. Too often, white supremacy is boiled down to matters of identity and prejudice. In mainstream white circles, the term refers to acts of overt, intentional racism and to visions of social order that, like Jim Crow, debase Black Americans and other people of color—and glorify whiteness, white identity, and white culture as superior to all other peoples and cultural histories. Such attitudes are indeed alive and well among white Americans, many of whom actively endorse white superiority or accept and vote for someone who publicly takes that position. But conceiving of white supremacy as a problem of individual bad actors or explicit attitudes is too limited. It reduces a deep social problem to narrow questions ("Are they racist?" "Is this racist?") and shallow defensiveness ("I’m not being racist, but…"), while ignoring that white supremacy entails much more than outright bigotry.
When Scalawag speaks about white supremacy today, we mean something more complicated. Following a deep lineage of activists, organizers, and writers, we understand white supremacy to be a systemic and systematic phenomenon woven throughout a society, rather than just the work of racist individuals who intentionally and maliciously discriminate. Our institutions and social practices themselves prop up white advantage and protect white communities, while making Black and brown people vulnerable to exploitation, domination, and violence. This, in turn, incentivizes whites to implicitly or explicitly view themselves as not only better off, but superior.
In simple terms, white supremacy amounts to prejudiced understandings of racial groups plus the power to shape society to favor one group—whites—at the expense of the rest. It is a two-way collusion of pro-white institutions and pro-white assumptions.
To see white supremacy at work, we only need to look to the ways that local police forces, court systems, municipal governments, and the Justice Department have worked together to incarcerate millions of Black men and women, for crimes that white people commit with the same frequency. We can look at how addiction epidemics are treated as public health emergencies when they spread through white communities, but are denounced as crime sprees when they affect communities of color. We can look at the racial targeting of voter restrictions in many states. We can look at how the labor market is still structured to employ, retain, and promote white workers, of all ages and across educational backgrounds, more readily than it does Black and brown workers. We can talk about how access to healthy food, cultural institutions, and education are limited for so many Black and brown youth, who continue to live in neighborhoods that are segregated via housing policy, lending policy, and white flight.
It’s been said so many times, proven, and rehashed: If you’re white in this country, you are more likely to have the right and ability to vote, to get a decent education, to work, to get paid a living wage, to have health care, to live in a safe home with clean water, to walk the streets freely, to drive freely, to purchase things, to participate in civic discussions, and to speak without becoming a target of violence. “But that is the point of white supremacy,” Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, “to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification.”
The relationship between white supremacy and anti-Blackness
White supremacy is irrevocably tied up in anti-Blackness—a socialized way of stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discarding Black people in ways that oppress and harm them. Our culture supports the viewpoint that Black lives don’t matter in myriad ways, small and big, conscious and unconscious, intentional and unintentional, every day. “The daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip,” Claudia Rankine writes in Citizen. Here we are talking about the racialized narratives that associate Black men with criminality, Black women with illegitimate anger—and both with hypersexuality and aggression. These stereotyped images trap Black and brown people between being invisible in white culture and being hypervisible in ways that open them to violence. Every day, Black and brown people struggle against the likelihood that the police will see them as threats to be neutralized rather than people to be protected. That voicing their opinions will invite disbelief or retaliation. That their bodies will be exoticized and objectified. That they will not be hired for a job that they are more than qualified for. That they will be followed around the store. That they will be shot for wearing a hoody, or playing with a toy gun, or for nothing at all.
In the South and throughout the country, white supremacy is rooted in the European colonial project. The United States did not found itself on an empty continent. White men and women cleared the way for their settlements with a systemic program of genocide and land theft from indigenous peoples. The country didn’t build wealth and power within Northern factories alone, but through a brutal capitalism powered by the South’s chattel slavery. The inequitable divisions we see today across race and class betray our country’s blood-soaked foundations.
But white supremacy is not simply a vestigial remnant of that immoral past—a series of historical wrongs that white America has not yet made right. Instead, its inequities are actively reproduced across history and through the present, in new forms and with new mechanisms of white power. New kinds of European imperialism—administered by Western states, global governance organizations, and Western-owned corporations—still legitimate their interventions on the grounds that non-European, non-Christian cultures need saving and civilizing. The effect is the same—a society in which white people have control over resources and wealth, status and respect, and the states that administer those things. We are all implicated in and harmed by the violence that cultivated the ground we now live on. "Injustice anywhere," the old King saying goes, "is a threat to justice everywhere."
White supremacy is experienced and reproduced in ways that are both structural and intimate. It is seen at the macro-level of educational attainment statistics and is felt the micro-level when a white teacher over-disciplines and criminalizes a Black child. It depends on institutions that seem far away and beyond our control. And yet, by refusing to challenge these racialized practices, by accepting the narratives of white deservingness that legitimate white dominance, we are complicit and contribute to the reproduction of white supremacy. Whether individuals subscribe to those beliefs explicitly or implicitly, or participate in those power relations consciously or unconsciously, white supremacy does not need willing buy-in to thrive. But it does take willing resistance and reimagination to dismantle it.
Why media coverage matters
The history of the U.S. news media is rife with examples of media support for white supremacy.
In 1894 Josephus Daniels, a leading journalist in North Carolina, purchased the Raleigh News and Observer. A populist Democrat and strong proponent of Jim Crow, Daniels used the News and Observer to stoke anti-Black sentiment in a white supremacist campaign against the gains made during Reconstruction, which the paper labeled “Negro domination.” Today, The News and Observer is a well-respected and widely-read paper of record in North Carolina. During the same period, The New York Times participated in repeated editorial attacks on the work of none other than Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a Black woman journalist who was conducting the era’s most thorough investigation of lynchings.
The news media has always been a battleground for the debate over white supremacy—and not just in the editorial pages. Today, much of the news media is giving in to white supremacy, instead of calling it out, helping readers understand the origins and significance of racial inequity, or pushing back against those who profit from it. Journalists and commentators who do attempt this work are frequently punished for it. Take Jemele Hill, a Black sportscaster on ESPN, who was reprimanded for calling Donald Trump a white supremacist on Twitter, while many in the mainstream journalism world decried her for confusing analysis with opinion. Desmond Cole, one of Canada’s most popular columnists, was pushed out of The Toronto Star for his participation in police accountability activism. Journalist Sarah Jaffe was attacked for pointing out the connection between white supremacy and the U.S. prison system. Such backlash is deeply rooted in anti-Blackness. So is the creation of the term “Black Identity Extremist” by the FBI, and the frequent incorrect association of groups like the Movement for Black Lives with domestic terrorism, which the media often amplifies. And yet simply naming white supremacy continues to be a source of controversy.
The problem goes beyond a lack of diversity on newsroom staff (although that is a symptom of institutional racism, for sure). Because of unwillingness to identify and analyze white supremacy as an ideological system enacted through institutions, and because of attachment to an outdated concept of journalistic neutrality and objectivity, we believe that right now, many journalists aren’t telling the truth about white supremacy in this country.
Instead, racial inequalities are shunted into the journalistic corner once called “the race beat.” The objectivity standard that so many journalists cling to as proof of their neutrality gives the appearance that there are two sides to white supremacy, and that they each should get column space and the benefit of the doubt. “I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump told us after Charlottesville, decrying as "fake news" any media that fails to give white supremacists and antiracists equal regard.
At Scalawag, we believe that we don’t need a race beat, moral equivalencies, or a “national conversation.” We need a reckoning. The stories of the South teach us this lesson again and again. The people of the South, particularly Black and brown people here, can be credited with seeing the current iteration of white nationalism coming. Taking a lesson from this, we believe we should ask more of journalists, of publications, of writers—and of readers. Numerous antiracist activists, artists, and community workers have been working hard to dismantle structures that unfairly dominate and marginalize. We join them in this work, to provide a space in which journalism can be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
So Scalawag does not claim neutrality when it comes to white supremacy. As an organization, we openly affirm that Black lives matter, and we think aversion to this phrase is a demonstration of anti-Black sentiment. In a country that continues to systematically undervalue Black folks, their lives, loves, and dreams, declaring “Black Lives Matter” is treason. Those who cringe rightly understand that we intend to fundamentally alter the way our systems work, to do the current systems harm. To some, that justifies suspending a journalist or labeling a peaceful movement as a threat. But at Scalawag, we publicly commit to naming, analyzing, and challenging white supremacy and anti-Blackness in our work.
What are we doing about it?
Two common misconceptions about the South are alive and well in the national media. The first is that the racism experienced here is exceptional. The second is that there is no one in the South combating racism, and that Black and brown people living here are geographically cursed victims.
But we know that the South is all-too-often a testing ground for the white supremacy that pervades the nation. And we know that fierce individuals and groups have been combating white supremacy here for generations. We seek to partner with these communities of resistance and resilience to challenge the notion that the South is a passive spectator or hostile obstacle to history.
We can’t remedy any of this alone, but we’re deep into the urgency of trying.
As a publication, we’re only three years old, so we know that there are folks who have been doing this work far longer and far more effectively. Often times the wisdom of these individuals and organizations goes unheeded and their victories go uncelebrated. It is important for Scalawag to collaborate with these folks to further the collective work of untangling our institutions and communities from white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Together we will seek to better understand structural racism—and to share the stories of those combating it.
On top of ongoing—and intensified—reporting examining how Southerners encounter and challenge systemic racism, our first series within the Combating White Supremacy initiative features short profiles of Southerners who are pushing back against racism in their local contexts. We’ve asked contributors for profiles on activists and organizers from every southern state and from parts of the Global South. We want to know who these people are, what they are doing, and how to support them—and we want you to know about them too! If you are interested in interviewing or nominating someone for this profile series, please send us a pitch through our submissions page. Join us in telling the stories of brave Southerners working to reimagine and reshape our region.
Beyond highlighting activists and engaged Southerners, we also aim to work with local independent media outlets, with a focus on Black-owned outlets. This is critical to pulling journalism out from the pyroclastic cloud of white supremacy that stifles the narratives and experiences of Black and brown folks. Our partnerships with these media platforms will be flexible and will be structured in response to the needs and wants of the communities they serve. Through these collaborative relationships, we hope to deepen networks of communication across the South while also keeping a nuanced view of the issues playing out in Black and brown communities.
Our truth at Scalawag is that we want to write from a place of hope, from a place of urgency about understanding structural racism, from a place of possibility that it can change. That means we want to tell stories about resistance. We are also actively engaged with the analysis and discussion of anti-Blackness; with connecting stories of Black struggle to stories of Black joy, success, and resilience; with connecting journalism to poetry, stories to identity, and identity to resistance through words. We know that joy is not only key to social survive, it’s what garlands the pathway to flourishing.
How can you get involved?
We want you to send us your stories: about how white supremacy is playing out in your community, as well as about how you or the people around you are fighting back. About how white supremacy and anti-Blackness affect you, in multidimensional ways. About the shifting nature of racial identity in this country. About the structures that are often hidden from view.
We want to hear the stories that go untold except on front porches, in barbershops, or at bodegas. We’re interested in joy, creativity, and resistance as much as we are in structures of oppression. We’re interested in pieces and pitches that call how we think the world works into question, that are curious and vulnerable, that are open-ended and sharp. Get at us!
We know uncoupling our region from its long term relationship with racism is an arduous task that will take decades, maybe even centuries. But we love our neighbors, we love the South—too much to stand on the sidelines. And we are hopeful, actively hopeful, that reckoning, analyzing, and documenting, digging into the machinery of white supremacy and telling the truth about its consequences, can help change the structures that uphold it, whether that’s schools, jails, prisons, borders, newspapers, interpersonal relationships, hospitals, churches, corporations, or governments.
We’re here for the real work, the reckoning. Join us.