The wealthy white men who originated the institutions that make up this country — from those who stepped off the boat at Jamestown to those who led the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution — created the system of white supremacy. This white supremacy gave them free labor (free to them, although at great cost to the humans they enslaved), and thus aided them in generating amazing levels of wealth. Middle class and poor white people enabled this addiction because it gave them something as well — the illusion that they were allied with the wealthy white man rather than the poor Black man. These white people thought they could control the white supremacy they had created, but they lost control and became addicted to the power it gave them.
Many of those we call our Founding Fathers saw the moral quandary created by this addiction. George Washington wrote, “I wish from my soul that the legislature of this State could see a policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition not only of the trade but of the condition of slavery: and certainly nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice for that object.” And James Madison wrote, “The magnitude of this evil among us is so deeply felt, and so universally acknowledged, that no merit could be greater than that of devising a satisfactory remedy for it.” And yet their addiction, as for so many people, superseded their common sense and intellect — their financial and political interests won out, and they did nothing to further abolition or equality between the races. James Madison and the other framers of the Constitution wrote white supremacy’s code of reduced Black personhood into the document through the three-fifths clause, counting Black people as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation, but not allowing them to vote whether they were free or enslaved.
Over time, those who were slavery’s greatest beneficiaries began not to criticize it halfheartedly, but to articulate its so-called virtues. John Calhoun, senator from South Carolina and one of slavery’s most ardent defenders, wrote in 1837: “I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good… I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age.”
This addiction — this disease — of white supremacy has altered and changed over the years, responding to those who tried to liberate our nation — and enslaved people — from its grip. Abolitionists, Black and white, labored for years to destroy the institution of slavery. When it was gone, the addiction became Jim Crow in the South and racial marginalization in the North. Civil rights activists, Black and white, fought to overturn these conditions, and when they succeeded in passing landmark legislation in the 1960’s, the addiction changed again, into the mass incarceration, disinvestment in public services, and resegregation and concentrated inequality we see today. Even climate change, caused by our extract-and-use-at-all-costs mindset, is at core a function of white supremacy.
And now we can especially see white supremacy at work in the person and actions of President Donald J. Trump. His comments over the years — about Mexicans, about Black people,about Native Americans, about Muslims — demonstrate his dedication to white supremacy. His policies — the border wall, the Muslim Ban, family separation, abusive policies for asylum-seekers, and so many others — demonstrate his dedication to white supremacy. Even his corruption — his tendency to view the presidency and its power as his personal right, and the actions he took in Ukraine as a result — come from his personal commitment to white supremacy. The fact that millions of people voted for Trump in spite of, or because of, all of these things demonstrates the grip of white supremacy’s addiction on our nation. This is not the same as saying that each of these people is a white supremacist. I am saying that these people gain something from their addiction to white supremacy by supporting him, and that these people can’t yet recognize the damage this addiction is doing to them. These people are dedicated to the idea that they are losing what they had — secure jobs, stable communities — and that their loss is because of what people of color have gained. They are encouraged by white supremacy to place blame on marginalized people rather than where it truly belongs — on those who set up and truly benefit from our capitalist system.
But some of us white people have started to wake up to the negative effects of white supremacy addiction on ourselves, in addition to the horrible, life-altering effects on people of color. This awakening is not due to any special qualities or status… it is due to some arbitrary advantages we enjoy. It is much easier to see how white supremacy is both helping and harming you when you do not have to struggle to put food on the table or provide healthcare to your family. Some of us now see these institutions of incarceration, disinvestment, and income inequality harming people of color and turning on white people themselves. And in addition to advocating for the disruption of these institutions, we are calling for our representatives in the government to act as a check on Trump and his white supremacist beliefs, policies, and actions.
There are many other Americans who fall somewhere in the middle — they cannot yet see the white supremacy swirling around them, yet they recognize that there is something profoundly wrong with how Donald Trump is leading this country. Some of these people might even say that Donald Trump himself is a racist or white supremacist, without acknowledging how white supremacy is at play in their own lives.
Still, there is a critical mass of people who see Trump’s beliefs, policies, and actions as problematic. As a result, The House of Representatives has impeached him for his conduct in Ukraine. The Senate will now try him, and if by some chance they would convict him, it would send at least a tentative message that we can no longer allow white supremacy to rule unchecked in this country.
But the Senate will not convict. The Republican Senators, and too many of the American people, are dedicated to the proposition that they are losing what was theirs, and they will fight tooth and nail to keep what they have. The addiction is too strong. There is no simple solution. Instead, we must work through the long process of breaking free from our addiction to white supremacy. We must acknowledge the sickness and examine its effects on ourselves and others. We must explore what it would look like to be a society not premised on white supremacy. We must understand what new habits, institutions, and policies will support us as a recovered nation. And we must take steps to enact and protect those policies. Massive voter enfranchisement, destruction of mass incarceration, and a universal basic income would be a starting place for breaking the hold of white supremacy on our nation — allowing all of us to flourish, undermining the inequalities that encourage poor and middle-class whites to see Black people in similar economic circumstances to them as the enemy.
We cannot delude ourselves into believing that recovery will be easy. There are many, many Americans whose dedication to white supremacy is strong. There are many powerful Americans who continue to benefit financially from the current system, and they will not simply accept an upending of their power. But ending addiction is not a simple, straightforward process. We will not convict Trump and remove him from office. We must first defeat him in the polls in November 2020. But as I have argued before, our victory in the presidential election this year must be just the first step. To break the power of white supremacy, we must be active in our recovery, stay vigilant, and fight every day for a new society that is built on equality. We must create a society that no longer targets Black men with police violence, that no longer separates families of Latinx immigrants, that no longer forces poor rural whites to choose between food and healthcare, that no longer bans people from entering our country because of a thinly-veiled attack on their religion of Islam. We must create a society consciously built on the recognition and weaving together of our individual, group, and collective identities into an integrated national identity that thrives without need of the artificial high of white supremacy. Only then can we achieve a healthy life as a nation that values all of its members.
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