Believing In Privilege

White Supremacy, part 2

The Long and Continuing Ideology of White Supremacy

After the Civil War, slavery continued under different names. One of those names was "sharecropping."

Another name was "incarceration." The 13th amendment ended slavery or involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime,” so the white power structure started fabricating crimes to convict blacks of to continue slavery.

We have seen the photographs from the 1930s of smiling, celebrating white faces, where in the background we see what is hanging from a tree and realize that they are partying because murdering a black person makes them feel good. The Jim Crow era of separate water fountains and bathrooms – of restaurants and hotels that barred blacks was not just an inconvenience. It was a constant reminder that if you were black, you were despised.

Imagine housing policy that systematically corrals you into segregated neighborhoods, and then enforces poverty in those neighborhoods by denying home loans or business loans to any attempt at development. White people who advance up the economic ladder are generally committed and hard-working – and, somewhere along the line they got personal and business loans, they got insurance that lowered their risk, they got various financial services that have been systematically denied to blacks.

And if the people in your neighborhood can’t pull themselves up by building business that serve you, then you go unserved: African American neighborhoods have often been limited in their access to banking, healthcare, retail merchandise and even groceries. Deliberate policies preventing development also lead to abandoned buildings – which facilitate drug dealing and other illegal activity.

If a referee is unconsciously swayed by a little booing, what’s it like to be subject to continuous booing your entire life no matter what you do – and knowing the booing can turn into beating or killing at any moment?

And it’s not like that’s all in the past. We saw eight years of unprecedented disrespect to a president – including doubts about his citizenship – because he was black. And we followed that by electing a man whose company the Justice Department sued ― twice ― for not renting to black people. In 1992, his Hotel and Casino company in New Jersey was fined $200,000 because managers would remove African-American card dealers at the request of a certain big-spending gambler. During the campaign, he was supported by white supremacists – that is, the explicit kind – whom he refused to condemn. His rhetoric is consistent in treating racial groups as monoliths. He encouraged the mob anger that resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of the Central Park Five. At a campaign rally he condoned the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester. And we elected him anyway. He drew only 8 percent of black voters, and only 46 percent of all voters, but he got 58 percent of white voters. For a 58 percent majority of white voters, the candidate’s racism was not a deal breaker. Then he “picked top advisers and cabinet officials whose careers are checkered by accusations of racially biased behavior.” The ideology of white supremacy continues.

Privilege Generates the Belief It is Deserved

Another bit of human psychology that isn’t itself about race, but then manifests racially is revealed by observations of subjects playing the monopoly board game. Two people play, but with different rules. One randomly selected player started the game with $2,000 of monopoly money, got $200 for passing Go each time, and threw two dice for every move – which, you may recall, is the normal way monopoly is played. Let’s call this player Bob. The other player, let’s call him Bill, started with $1,000, got $100 for passing Go each time, and threw one die for every move.
“The students play for 15 minutes under the watchful eye of two video cameras, while down the hall researchers huddle around a computer screen, later recording the subjects’ every facial twitch and hand gesture.” (New York Magazine, 2012)
What happens? Initially "Bob"
"reacted to the inequality between him and his opponent with a series of smirks, an acknowledgment, perhaps of the inherent awkwardness of the situation. 'Hey,' his expression seemed to say, 'This is weird and unfair, but whatever.' Soon, though, as he whizzes around the board, purchasing properties and collecting rent, whatever discomfort he feels seems to dissipate....He balloons in size, spreading his limbs toward the far ends of the table. He smacks his playing piece as makes the circuit – smack, smack, smack – ending his turns with a board-shuddering bang!...As the game nears its finish, [Bob] moves his [piece] faster....He’s all efficiency. He refuses to meet [Bill’s] gaze. His expression is stone cold as he takes the loser’s cash."
People who are given unfair advantages start to act like they deserve it, must have earned it, must be better somehow. So Iowa Congressman Steve King last year wondered where
“are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people?...
Where did any other subgroup of people [other than whites] contribute more to civilization?” (NYTimes, 2016)
Western civilization, he said, is rooted in “Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of American and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world.”

The phenomenon of people born on third base believing they hit a triple is built into us – it’s in our nature -- which is to the detriment of the guy born on third but also to the detriment of the guy who is still at the plate trying to deal with the curve balls he’s being thrown. The guy at the plate is also likely to start believing the guy on third base must have hit a triple. It’s what he keeps insisting, and who has the energy to refute it when the next difficult pitch is about to come at you. That’s how white supremacy works.

I grew up with – and maybe you did too -- the mythic tales of the rise of Western Civilization, the kind of stories about ourselves that congressman Steve King so evidently believes in. Will and Ariel Durant’s “Story of Civilization” stretched to 11 volumes, the first published in 1935, with a new volume every few years until the last in 1975. It was hugely popular, sold over two million copies. The Durants “told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” (Brooks) While the Durants never said, "white people are genetically superior," or "are God's favorite," they also provided no other explanation for why these "great ideas and innovations" did not appear in the pre-Colombian Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, or East Asia. White readers were left to assume that there must be something special about white people.

I grew up inspired by that kind of story of my place in history. I came eventually to understand that the silences in that story -- silences about why the West's ideas and innovations occurred where and how they did -- created spaces within which racist assumptions could flourish. Twenty years ago, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel helped many us get a better understanding of the rise of European wealth and power as geographically determined. Temperate climates, suitable soil, and availability of domesticable animals created the initial conditions that freed a little time for technological development and the rise of population centers which fueled further sharing of ideas and innovations. Moreover, close proximity of humans to each other and their domesticated animals led to diseases and eventual immunities not found among other humans. The technological development (steel, guns) and the immunity (germs) were the key means by which Europeans came to dominate the globe. The Europeans aren't smarter or more virtuous by nature, they are just the beneficiaries of geographic good luck.

Humans and chimps have a deep history of conquering each other when they can, so any people that stumbled upon the means for vast conquest was liable to use it. With that domination also came the willful destruction and erasure of the advances and contributions of Nonwestern peoples – advances all the more remarkable because not supported by the powerful geographic advantages of the civilization that emerged and spread from the fertile crescent into similarly temperate climes.

It was a long march through the last 3,000 years to the rise of white supremacy. It will be a long march to dismantling its injustices.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "White Supremacy"
See also
Part 1: Truth With Your Own Tribe
Part 3: Realities of White Privilege

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