Last week, Rick Hess lambasted not only the Harvard protesters who greeted Betsy DeVos with a banner reading “White Supremacist,” but all the progressive education reformers who stayed silent about it. (Maybe we had better things to do than worry about a bunch of college students engaging in political theater, but that’s another story.) Here’s the crux of his complaint:
First off, let’s keep in mind that “white supremacist” is (and should be) an extraordinarily potent term: It’s a word that has been used to denote truly execrable people, those who trade in racial hatred and fantasies of an ethnocentric hierarchy in which whites reign supreme.
Sorry Rick, but those aren’t fantasies. That’s the history of the United States of America. There is no instance in U.S. history where White people viewed themselves as merely equal to people of color without intense struggle, often violent conflict. In fact, the idea of White supremacy is so powerful that people from cultures not previously considered White—think Irish, Italians and Jews—fought to join the team, sometimes at the expense of their own identities, always at the expense of possible solidarity with other groups not considered part of the White in-group. (How The Irish Became White is perhaps the most famous example.)
When the Constitution was written, Black slaves only counted as three-fifths of a human being. The Heritage Foundation guide to the Constitution explains this quite well, including the argument that counting non-voting slaves equally with White voters would have provided even more incentive for Southern states to import more captured Africans.
And yes, I’m well aware it was delegates from Northern states who wanted it that way. As Massachusetts Constitutional Convention delegate (and later vice president) Elbridge Gerry put it, why should “the blacks, who were property in the South, be in the rule of representation more than the cattle and horses of the North?” I don’t think it’s an unfair or backwards reading of history to call that statement White supremacist.
U.S. History Is Riddled with White Supremacy
It’s not a fantasy to recall the era of Reconstruction, when President Andrew Johnson collaborated with Southern Whites to restore Black slavery in fact, if not in name. Perhaps you remember teaching about the vicious electoral battles between Radical Republicans and Southern Democrats, the party of “White supremacy” as described in the PBS mini-series “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.”
Despite the hard work of civil rights leaders from W.E.B. Du Bois through Black Lives Matter, we continue to live in a society where the underlying assumptions governing every key aspect of life: education, politics, economics, social relations—take for granted that White people come first. Even if we had a Black president. Even if Betsy DeVos has “devoted thousands of hours and millions of dollars to fighting for her vision of educational betterment—especially for minority children in high-poverty communities.”
If we had no history of separate and unequal treatment of people of color in K-12 schools, would we need support from philanthropists like DeVos to make a dent in leveling the playing field?
The issue here is about defining White supremacy. If White supremacy only means the most extreme manifestations of racism, then yeah, it’s out of line to call DeVos—and most White Americans—White supremacists.
But if White supremacy really is a phrase that explains structural racism—how the “games” of education, jobs, income and social status really work in the United States—then White supremacy is everywhere. White Americans—me included—are hip-deep in it every day. And the job of eradicating it becomes a great deal more complicated.
We White People Need to Look in the Mirror
For those of us who are White, it starts with a hard look in the mirror. I got my first one as a college student, taking a course with the renowned Black feminist theorist bell hooks. When she used the phrase “White supremacy” in the sense I’m talking about on the first day of class, a handful of White students taking the course walked out and never came back. Though it was hard to listen to at first, I stayed.
“If she has to say it so loud and so strong, I guess I might as well find out what she’s talking about,” I wrote in the journal we were required to keep for the course. Like many White people, I entered the course thinking that racism was about personal prejudices and White supremacists were extremists belonging to hate group like the Ku Klux Klan.
I left thinking otherwise. Not just because of the teacher, but thanks to the many brilliant young people of color who shared their thoughts and experiences, primarily with each other. I was lucky to be mostly a fly on the wall listening to their thinking about how White supremacy is visible in such seemingly minor cultural artifacts as the color of Band-Aids. Whose flesh determines what is “flesh toned?”
My first year of teaching taught me even more. It’s hard to deny the reality that White supremacy is deeply ingrained in policing when you are walking your Black male teenage students out of school to keep cops from arresting them on sight, even when you know they spent the entire day learning.
It’s also hard to deny the reality of White supremacy in schools when you are teaching five classes, full of returning high school dropouts, and only two of their faces are White.
White Supremacy Should Be Defined, Not Declared Off Limits
As Rishawn Biddle points out, DeVos’ position on choice is a positive for her openness to leveling the playing field for young people of color. But overall, her decision to join the Trump administration, the rollback of civil rights investigations into excessive use of suspensions and expulsions, and her refusal to challenge her boss on the decision to end DACA all suggest she is at least a “willing collaborator” with people who are choosing to throw Black and Brown children under the bus.
By contrast, Rick, you’re arguing that the phrase “White supremacist” should be out of bounds in a civilized discussion of education reform issues. I disagree. I hope that perhaps the responses you are getting will be for you what walking into bell hooks’ classroom was for me; the moment to stop being defensive and start wondering why someone is using the phrase “White supremacy” to describe systemic racism.
To take a deeper look into the question, I recommend trying out our our newest set of Racial Crossfit exercises looking deeply at U.S. history. They’re a great way to start thinking about how a deeper look into what White supremacy means could bring us closer to a society that truly embodies “liberty and justice for all.”