Photo by Frankie Cordoba on Unsplash.

Reckoning with white supremacy: Five fundamentals for white folks

For our folks on the frontlines: Bail funds across the South

As demonstrations in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others gain momentum across the United States, many white people nationwide are being forced to confront the idea that flashpoints like this are not isolated missteps within an otherwise faithful system. Rather, more and more white folks are realizing each day that the very fabric of our society is in fact based on enduring violence against Black people and other marginalized groups.

In this time, the sharing of trauma-porn and reactionary social-media solidarity—while perhaps the most readily available avenue of action for most—are nowhere near suitable surrogates for a factual, historical understanding of this moment. 

Southerners are no strangers to white supremacy and police brutality. From slavery to secession, the KKK to “states rights” strategies, from Jim Crow to mass incarceration—we’ve been here before.

If you’re a “well-meaning” white person feeling lost in your own self-actualization process, here are five basic ideas you must grasp:

1. White supremacy is not “just” racism.

Racism often refers to acts of overt, intentional prejudice and visions of social order that debase people of color while glorifying whiteness. But white supremacy is a systemic and systematic phenomenon woven throughout our 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.

Conceiving of white supremacy as a problem of individual bad actors 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 is not just a vestigial remnant of the past. White supremacy’s inequities are actively reproduced across history and through the present, in new forms and with new mechanisms of white power.

Understand too that 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.

Read: Kari Points & Evangeline Weiss’s tactics for helping white women challenge white supremacy, Lizzy Hazeltine

“What reinforces it is how individual white people access and are assimilated into [white supremacy]. It’s a mixed metaphor, but it’s like an echo chamber of silence as long as [white supremacy’s] not named.”

See also: We’re talking about white supremacy and anti-Blackness (and you should too)

2. Today’s police system is rooted in slavery.

Slavery is often defined in two ways: the economic condition of bondage and forced labor, as well as a condition of dishonor or “social death,” the systematic rupture of familial ties and genealogical continuity, and gratuitous violence. 

Modern policing fulfills the conditions of both perspectives. America’s policing system reproduces and reinforces both patterns on Black people: that of forced labor—through the use of unpaid labor in prisons, by preventing acts of collective expropriation, by criminalizing lifestyles that resist wage work—just as it ensures “social death”—by breaking up familial connections via prison system, destroying Black social organizations, or enacting limitless violence against young Black people in poorer neighborhoods across the country.

The law today grants prosecutors complete authority to determine who will be prosecuted. The law is also supposed to leave room for any person to dissent or resist police conduct directed toward them. But because of its fundamentally racist roots, the law is deliberately designed to protect police officers from prosecution for misconduct as enforcers of white supremacy.

Read: Where do the police come from? Neal Shirley & Saralee Stafford

We would ask those who desire an “accountable” or “just” police force: At what point in this history, in what period, do they believe that police became an institution that intended anything other than the reproduction of capital and the enforced social death of Black people? When has there ever been a break, either social or economic, political or existential, with this contiguous line of flight towards dispossession and misery? Slavery functions not just as the historical origin point of policing, but also as its continued ontological force and psychological foundation. How could there ever be “accountability” with such an institution?

See also: The Police, the Law, and the Unjustified Use of Force, Irving Joyner

In 2015, a time when there are civil rights laws on the books and many police departments and prosecutors’ offices are racially integrated, you would not expect the responses to police killings of African Americans to meet the same fate as in 1952. But the failure to investigate is the same today as it was then—except now it is a national problem.

3. The news has always been influenced to evoke sympathy towards cops and resentment towards protestors.

In periods of mass unrest, police departments always strive to show measured sympathy for the Black communities they often criminalize or neglect in other contexts. They also portray widespread criticism of policing—especially the protests themselves—as dangerous threats to public order. The national media plays into this false narrative—a calculated tactic that can be traced back to the Freedom Riders.

Example: In Ferguson, Missouri, during the peak of the unrest around the murder of Michael Brown in 2014, Captain Ronald Johnson—a Ferguson native who touted his local ties to the Black community—was put in front of cameras to announce a new practice of community policing that would presumably replace military tactics used against protesters and reporters. The media ate it up. But protestors still had reason to continue demonstrations a year later.

Read: Police and the silent majority, Seth Farber

This narrative, which claims that protests embolden violent criminals and destabilize cities, has come to be called the “Ferguson effect.” Despite record low numbers of murdered police officers, many politicians and pundits insist that the U.S. is in the throes of a “war on cops.” Although now widely debunked, the “Ferguson effect” narrative continues to gain broad acceptance, making it easier for White Americans to express antipathy toward protesters without acknowledging the injustices visited upon Black communities by the criminal justice system. In the context of an imagined war on police, it feels noble to call for civility first and foremost. Doing so makes the act of dismissing Black protest seem a sensible response, rather than a blatantly self-serving one.

See also: White churches ‘aren’t naming racism as a sin,’ says Rob Lee, Sammy Hanf

4. Yes, you are inherently part of the problem.

As we see this narrative play out on social media, we all have the instinct to virtue-signal and efface self-criticism, almost without recognizing it. White folks must work to find ways to speak without absolving ourselves and without denying the fact we are continually at risk of failing. As Sara Ahmed has argued, “the language we think of as critical can easily ‘lend itself’ to the [things] we critique... Saying ‘we are racist’ becomes a claim to have overcome the conditions (unseen racism) that require the speech act in the first place.”

This kind of self-absolution is fundamental to the ways white Americans talk about race: Racism is always the fault of someone else, someone who doesn’t know what I know. As Black activists continue to make racial oppression an unavoidable topic, the mainstream media wants you to avoid necessary self-criticism by pinning blame on others.

Read: White silence is tragic silence, Matt Hartman

At their best, responses like these are meant to begin a conversation that leads to a larger struggle. More commonly—for myself, anyway—they are a defeatist response, a way of soothing my own guilt when I don’t know what else I could do, or when the prospect of long-term, continuous struggle against the culture of a nation where hate groups are “surging” is too overwhelming to comprehend.

See also: Read, Watch, Listen, Do: a Scalawag resource guide for understanding white supremacy

5. If you really care about what’s going on, you need to listen to people of color before doing anything else.

White skin, Isaac S. Villegas

To be a racial minority involves the constant negotiation of bodies and speech—to notice the meaning of my skin in relation to yours, to discern the value of my tongue among the languages and accents echoing in a room. ‘Do I belong here,’ I always ask myself, ‘In this language, among these people?’

I pledge allegiance to the Always Not Yet, Zaina Alsous

What would it look like to fully sit with Hughes’ “America never was”? What would it mean to disentangle hope from White nationalism? To situate our position—here, right now, on sacred, stolen land. There is no American model absent paradigmatic violence to cling to, to return to. What would it mean to say I feel devoted to you and not this flag? What would it mean to pledge allegiance to the not yet and the could be?

A dispatch from the streets of Charlotte, Danielle Purifoy

If folk had come last night wanting a war, there would have been one, especially after that shooting. Instead, people chanted, sang, danced, and supported one another. They stopped one man from getting into a fight with a White guy who had been throwing fireworks, allegedly in solidarity. Someone yelled—"that's not what we're here for."

Don’t call the police on poverty, Lamont Lilly

Poor people are not stupid. They’re not criminals. They’re human beings that live in a society where jobs are drying up and opportunities often don't exist.

Further reading:

Black lives matter—so should their votes, Mac McCann

The Electoral College was balanced to empower slave states in the 18th century—today it continues to disempower Black voters.

White people who want to end gun violence need to combat white supremacy, David Straughn

No one is immune to the bullets sprayed or the cars driven in the intense, seething rage of white supremacist anger at its peak. No one is safe. When white supremacy prevails, we all suffer.

  • About

    Lovey Cooper is managing editor at Scalawag magazine and the voice of This Week in the South. Her work focuses on policy, justice, and the intersection of politics and culture in the South and Appalachia.