Here’s what white supremacy used to mean:
If you were an African American man or woman living in Atlanta in 1906, you couldn’t walk through Ponce de Leon Park unless you were working as a servant for a white family.
If you stepped into Rich's department store and tried on a hat, you bought that hat (a clerk would not expect white customers to purchase one that had touched a black person’s scalp).
All summer long you would hear gubernatorial candidates in that year’s election vie to ensure white-only voting laws in the state.
You had to behave well in public, because the local “convict-lease” system is in place, which rounds up marginal individuals on the streets, charges them with loitering and other small crimes, then “rents” them to nearby factories, mills, and farms where they can work off their fines. In June of that year, the population is 2,052 black men and 207 white men; 107 black women and six white women.
If you want to work in public service, Federal postmaster is just about your only option.
You can swim in Lakewood Park, but only in designated spots well apart from white facilities.
And there is always the prospect of violence. Georgia is second only to Mississippi in lynching cases in those years.
Even ordinary life is a constant reminder of inferiority and indignity. As W. E. B. Du Bois tells a journalist and a leading town minister at the time, “You cannot understand that crawling, beaten feeling that makes one wish to sneak like a dog under the house and out from the sight of men.”
None of those conditions linger today. White supremacy has a different meaning in the 21st century. It’s a matter of outcomes:
African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but they make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population.
Only three percent of lawyers at top law firms are African American.
Only one percent of physics doctorates awarded from 2010 to 2013 in the United States went to African Americans.
In 2013, 64 percent of white borrowers had a credit score of at least 720. Only 33 percent of African Americans reached 720.
On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress in math, 43 percent of white 8th-graders reached proficiency, but only 13 percent of black 8th-graders reached proficiency.
We could go on. The bare fact of disproportionate outcomes in jobs, education, crime, and finance proves the case for white supremacy. At the moment in our society, we have unequal results, and the only polite explanation for them is systemic discrimination. The flat citation of skewed numbers — for instance, the unemployment rate for blacks doubling that for whites — automatically shows it. It isn’t necessary to inquire into causes, to determine what specifically gave us these disproportionate results. The results themselves are white supremacy.
This is a far cry from the active legal and social animus against African Americans 100 years ago. We can call it white supremacy, in fact, only by assuming the utopian premise that every group should have equal representation everywhere. Any discrepancies in the final tallies, as charted by race, must indicate a racist distortion at work.
Millennials are particularly prone to this faith. As one student put it to me, “Everyone has the right to be happy.” The problem with this is that the white supremacy explanation for inequities rules out every other explanation. If you try to seek other causes — for instance, fatherlessness as a reason why young black males end up in jail — you sound like you’re blaming-the-victim. If you point out the deterioration of a Protestant work ethic in urban African American neighborhoods, as Amy Wax and Larry Alexander did in their Philadelphia Inquirer column last August (“Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture”) well, then you’re engaging in . . . white supremacy!
The white supremacy charge is a bullying tactic. It invokes a disturbing history of white hoods and strange fruit, separate entrances and drinking fountains that doesn’t apply to current facts, but certainly intimidates everyone present. It reduces all the social, familial, biological, geographical, educational, and cultural complexities of modern human experience to a single racist syndrome that few people wish to question. Progressives are enamored of it, and liberals, too, lest they be accused of denying it (few things frighten liberals more than being judged insensitive to the sufferings of African Americans).
Those of us who study and teach the history of U.S. race relations and haven’t let white guilt distort our knowledge of the past know how inappropriate the term white supremacy is to the racial gaps of 2018. Only historical ignorance lets them throw the term around so carelessly. Or maybe it’s just that people in debate and in public life enjoy having a rhetorical cannon in their hands that they can always fire and shut down an adversary who dares to forget the sacred liberal truth of white guilt.
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University and Senior Editor at First Things Magazine. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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