Facing what seems like an endless stream of news about racialized conflicts and violence, many people call for us to get beyond our history and find solutions for today, concrete actions we can take immediately, ways of expressing love right now to help us cope with the pain.
This yearning is understandable, but it’s just as important that we grapple with history, realize the inadequacy of any actions we might take today, and accept the limits of love in the face of political and economic realities. Better that we start with a harsh, but honest, assessment: The United States has always been, and likely always will be, a white-supremacist country.
Start by (1) remembering that the United States is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the world and (2) realizing that this wealth and power has depended on the idea of white supremacy. Recognize that the material comfort of the United States is the product of three racialized holocausts, rationalized by white supremacy.
Acquiring the land base of the United States required the most extensive genocide in recorded human history, the campaign to remove indigenous people and allow Europeans and their descendants to claim ownership of, and exploit, the land and its resources. This process killed millions and destroyed entire societies.
The United States in the 19th century was propelled into the industrial era in large part on the back of cheap cotton, which provided the raw material for the mills of the northeast and crucial hard currency from exports to Europe. This was not the product of free-market economics but the Atlantic slave trade, a process that killed millions and destroyed entire societies.
The United States in the 20th century eventually became the global power, through the use of overt military aggression, covert operations, and violence by proxies to maintain a world order hospitable to U.S. economic interests. From “our backyard” in Central America to southern Africa through the Middle East and Asia, U.S. policy drove toward dominance, a process that was easier to sell to the public because the millions killed and the societies destroyed were almost all non-white.
In all these endeavors, Europeans and their descendants did not dominate and exterminate because they hated non-white peoples but out of desire for wealth and power. The ideology of white supremacy developed to justify the domination and extermination of other human beings. Europeans have a long history of violence toward each other as well, but the conquest of non-white peoples throughout the world produced the distinctive pathology of white supremacy.
Because the wealth and power of the United States are so deeply rooted in white supremacy, the abandonment of that pathology would inevitably lead to difficult questions about the country’s moral and material obligations to non-white people, at home and abroad. If poor and working-class white people were to say, “But wait, I haven’t been able to cash in on much of this wealth,” that would inevitably lead to questions about the pathology of capitalism. If women were to say, “But wait, no matter what the race and class hierarchies, we still face endemic violence and denigration,” that would inevitably lead to questions about the pathology of patriarchy.
All systems of illegitimate authority that give some people unearned wealth and power are based on a similar pathology that tries to naturalize hierarchy and exploitation. Pull on one string, and the fabric of rationalizations for all systems of domination/subordination start to unravel.
The United States likely will always be a white-supremacist nation because we have neither the intellectual nor moral traditions to deal with these harsh realities. As a country, we are intellectually lazy and morally weak. Mainstream politics, conservative and liberal, are terrified of acknowledging these realities, and so they are pushed to the margins.
In 1962, James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The United States still has not faced this history and contemporary reality.
That doesn’t mean we have made no progress. No one I know wants to go back to 1962. The accomplishments of the freedom struggle, anti-lynching campaigns, the civil-rights movement are not insignificant. The fact that a black person sits in the White House is not trivial.
But that doesn’t change the white-supremacist roots and contemporary reality of the United States, and the entrenched resistance to change in the fundamental distribution of wealth and power.
In that essay, Baldwin suggested that writers should “tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.”
To date, the United States has turned away from Baldwin’s challenge. I see no evidence in contemporary culture that we are any closer to telling the truth. That means whatever actions we take today, however we make our love real in the world, we must push each other to face our history and ourselves.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His most recent book is Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, 2015), and he also is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005). Jensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his articles can be found online, or join an email list to receive new articles. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.