Defining White Supremacy

This article was originally published in The Routledge Handbook of Law and Society .

In recent years, the concept of white supremacy has been associated with extreme racist groups and ultranationalists, as well as high-profile acts of associated racial terrorism, particularly in Western countries. Some examples are: the massacre of nine African-American worshippers at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina (USA), the violent white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia (USA), the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand that killed 51 people and injured 49, the Hanau, Germany attack that killed nine people and wounded six others, and the shooting deaths of eleven congregants in a synagogue in  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (USA), among many others. There has also been a renewed rise of right-wing movements, politicians, and governments who espouse and advocate for ethno-nationalism and white supremacist policies. In Europe, we have seen a resurgence of ethno-nationalist parties, neo-Nazi movements, and other radical stances, often under the guise of populism, against non-white, non-Christian local and immigrant groups. In the United States, the ‘Christian Identity Movement’ – in which members believe in an impending Armageddon and a battle between whites and non-whites – is the dominant religious viewpoint of white supremacist groups. Latin America has also seen the rise, through the undemocratic usurpation of power, of right-wing and Christian fundamentalist white supremacist regimes, such as those in Brazil and Bolivia.

The concept of white supremacy also conjures up well-known and specific historical examples.  Jim Crow segregation laws in the US, and the attendant terrorism of the Black community by Ku Klux Klan; the apartheid system in Southern Africa, that allowed for the economic, political, cultural, and social domination of the majority Black population by a racist white minority; the Aryan theories and violence perpetuated by Hitler’s Nazi party against Jews and other non-Aryans – these all serve as the standard references of white supremacy. But it was the emergence of Western racial science in the early 19th century, promulgating the idea of white racial superiority and non-white racial inferiority, that provided the ideological and intellectual scaffolding for the enactment and justification for the brutalities of European expansion and military and political domination of the rest of the world. Through Western racial science, ‘evolution was made to prove that Negroes and Asiatics were less developed human beings than whites; history was so written as to make all civilization the development of white people … brain weights and intelligence tests were used and distorted to prove the superiority of white folk’ (DuBois, 1946: 37). The result was the complete domination of the world by Europe (and its satellites in North America).

White supremacy is, as philosopher Frances Lee Ansley contends, ‘A political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources’. This broad global system includes widespread ‘conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement’, as well as ‘relations of white dominance and non-white subordination’ reenacted ‘daily across a broad array of institutions and social settings’.

It is important to understand that the concept of white supremacy extends beyond the recognized understandings of race, racialization, and racism. White supremacy certainly depends on the construction of the idea of race as a hierarchical relationship of power based on presumed biological and cultural differences, as well as related practices of racism, the valorization of whiteness, and the denigration of non-whiteness. But we should also recognize that the workings of race depend on racialization processes where racial meanings are often in flux and can be malleable and shifting in various contexts – even as whiteness retains its power position. The articulations of white supremacy, therefore, may shift depending on cultural and political contexts. There remains, nevertheless, a set of specific power dynamics inherent in the construction of race: that is, the hierarchical categorization of ‘white’ as racially superior.  The point is to be explicit in naming whiteness as the clear power position in any analysis of race, racialization, and racism. In naming whiteness and analyzing white supremacy, it is just as important to stress the dominant role of racialized-as-white people in creating the material realities of inequality, racial oppression, hierarchies, and ‘white-framed interpretations’, but also,  the ‘white-imposed community norms; scientific and medical categorizations; residential, educational, or occupation segregation; and the racial images and ideologies of the media, popular culture, and science’ that assure white privilege and power. Race is always a description of a social, historical, cultural, and political position, and as James Baldwin reminds us, ‘whiteness is a metaphor for power’.

To examine white supremacy is thus to point to the presumed power and privilege of whiteness, and to analyze how whiteness is structured in and through our institutions, our disciplinary theories and methods, our everyday relations, as well as through global economic and political processes, processes that are always racial. It is to understand how, as Rev. Martin Luther King once reminded us, the doctrine of white supremacy is ‘embedded in every textbook and preached in practically every pulpit … [it is] a structural part of the culture’. At the same time, and in keeping with sociologist, W.E.B. DuBois’s analysis of the ‘complete domination of the world by Europe’, ideologies and practices of white supremacy are transnational and global.

The structures of white supremacy were established through the history of European expansion, the colonization of the Americas and dispossession of First Nations, the enslavement of Africans, the governance, classification, and ordering of peoples based on presumed racial difference, as well as a capitalist economic system dependent upon this difference. Thus, the current international power system emerged in the 15th century through violent ‘conquest, colonization, and universal legitimacy of European – and racialized white – power’. The impact of this power system continues to have global cultural, socio-political, and economic reverberations. For example, so-called ‘Third World’ nations are part of a global economy that is dominated by white capital and white international lending institutions, as well as Western intellectual, political, and juridical traditions and practices structured as white – ensuring the position of the non-white populations of the world at the bottom of all socio-economic and political hierarchies. The cultural projects of the white West dominate global experience – examples of which include worldwide practices of chemical skin bleaching, the western development regimes that buttress a ‘white saviour industrial complex’, education policies in former colonial (neocolonial) spaces, among others.

To account for the long history of European conquest of the world and the establishment of white supremacy as the ‘central organizing logic of western modernity’, is to also recognize the shared history of colonial invasion, extraction, and elimination that link Africa and Asia, to other areas such as the Middle East and Latin America within global structures of race and power. Thinking through white supremacy within a global framework thus allows us to connect ‘indirect’ and ‘direct’ rule under formal colonialism and the continued impact of racialization processes in the ‘post-colonial’ contexts of Africa and Asia. For example, even though South African apartheid, is considered the unique case of white supremacy on the African continent, apartheid was the norm rather than the exception in colonial Africa, as Mahmood Mamdani pointed out. It existed as a form of institutional segregation marked by racial differences called ‘associations’ by the French and ‘indirect rule’ or ‘suzerains’ by the British and Portuguese. In this way, the white supremacist colonial order – both its settler and non-settler variants – is an important frame of reference for understanding the making of nations and empires, new systems of capital and labour, new concepts of culture and identity, and new constructs of humanity. Notions of ‘Western liberal modernity’, ‘democracy’, and ‘morality’, emerge within the context of violent conquest and are justified by an intellectual and political apparatus – what has been called the joint march of liberalism and white supremacy. Disciplines such as anthropology played a key role in the development of racial science, helping to create the racio-biological taxonomy along with the ‘whiteness-above-all’ ideology that turned ‘physical difference into relations of domination’, which continues to shape our modern racial worldview.

Black and feminist scholars of colour have long documented and analyzed white supremacy as an important and global system of white racial dominance. But they have cautioned that white supremacy does not work alone; it is the modality through which many social and political relationships are lived. For example, capitalism, patriarchy, and racism work hand in hand with white supremacy, a set of relationships that cultural critic bell hooks refer to as ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’. And there can be no symmetry of race and gender subordination when cis-gendered women are differently positioned within white supremacy than non-white (and cis- and trans-) women and men. The same can be said about the relationship of white domination to class, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality, among other factors.

In this historical moment, as acts of white supremacist violence continue to proliferate, we caution against the reduction of white supremacy only to ‘white nationalism’. The logic of white supremacy as white nationalism is both flawed and obscuring. It is flawed, in that it assumes that white supremacy was not already built into the modern Western-ruled world. It is obscuring because it shifts understandings of white supremacy away from contemporary systems of power, and to white supremacy, as only reflected in specific acts of material violence. In order to intervene in the flawed and obscuring logic of white supremacy as ‘white nationalism’, we argue that scholars and activists should not simply focus on race, racialization processes, or racism alone, but also attend to the specific structural dynamics inherent in the hierarchical construction of race and of ‘whiteness’ at the top power position. To do so means: 1) establishing as given the long history of European expansion for the political, intellectual, cultural, and ideological sedimentation of presumed white superiority; 2) shifting from an overreliance on the deployment of white supremacy as identity (i.e. the ‘white supremacist’ or ‘white nationalist’) to deal with the structural and material embeddedness of white racial hegemony in the world; and 3)  understanding white supremacy as constituent of patriarchy, heteronormativity, settler colonialism, mass incarceration, political violence, xenophobia, and western imperial violence in and between societies structured in racial dominance.

Further readings

DuBois, William E.B. 1946. The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World  History. New York: Viking Press.

Lee, Butch and Rover, Red. 1998. Night-Visions: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain.  Oakland: AK Press.

Mills, Charles. 1994. ‘Revisionist Ontologies: Theorizing White Supremacy’. Social and Economic Studies 43  (3): 105–134.

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human,  After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument.’ CR: The New Centennial Review 3 (3): 257–337.

Dr. Jemima Pierre is an editor and contributor to Black Agenda Report, the Haiti/Americas Co-Coordinator for the Black Alliance for Peace, and a Black Studies and anthropology professor at UCLA.

Dr. Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús is an Anthropologist and Professor at, Princeton University. Author of, Electric Santeria. Editor-In-Chief of Transforming Anthropology journal.

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Jemima Pierre, a member of Black Alliance for Peace, is also a professor of Black Studies and Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.