It has become fashionable in some left-wing circles to regard the US as a white supremacist state. Until about 2017, white supremacists were people who burned crosses on church lawns and railed against “Mexican invasions” in the Daily Stormer, and white supremacy was their twisted ideology that deems whites the superior race. But the term has taken on a new meaning: today’s white supremacy refers to the white-controlled structures that perpetuate bias and disparate outcomes for minorities. Robin DiAngelo writes that “white supremacy is a highly descriptive term for the culture we live in; a culture which positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal.”
Only a few years ago, it was unheard of for mainstream voices to refer to American society in such terms. Today use of the term is as commonplace as the racism it purports to describe. Even the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, stated in an otherwise thoughtful speech that “It’s the white supremacy that led to the senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other Black Americans.” Since at least two of the three people who killed these victims were not members of white supremacist groups like the KKK, we can only infer that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield means the white supremacy of the Robin DiAngelo variety, the underlying social system that supposedly moulds the likes of a Derrick Chauvin but, apparently, none of his white jurors.
Prior to the 1960s, it would have been perfectly accurate to call America a white supremacist country because it had a series of laws and cultural practices that specifically subjugated black people. Today, it is absurd to classify it as such.
The problem with the white supremacy label is that America is one of the most open and freest countries in the world. If America is supremacist, so is every other country with inequality—i.e. every other country on earth. People from around the globe and of all colours want to immigrate to the US, where there is incredible opportunity, at least compared to nearly everywhere else. According to a 2018 Gallop poll, “One in five potential migrants (21%)—or about 158 million adults worldwide—name the U.S. as their desired future residence. Canada, Germany, France, Australia and the United Kingdom each appeal to more than 30 million adults.”
The vast majority of immigrants to the US are not white. Most come from Asia and Latin America. Approximately 10% of the US immigrant population is from Africa. If America were truly a white supremacist state, it would severely limit immigration of people of colour, in order to maintain its white majority. But America has kept its doors open to ethnically diverse immigrants, who, given the current trajectory, are likely to outnumber the white population within less than 25 years.
Moreover, once here, immigrants do significantly better in the US and Canada than they do in Europe. In the US, for example, the employment rate for immigrants—63%—is higher than that of the native born, whereas in Europe, the 54% employment rate for immigrants is significantly lower than that of the native born. Immigrants to the US on average do far better than they did in the nations they came from. How can a country that integrates brown and black immigrants better than any other place in the world be considered white supremacist?
Some might accuse me of whataboutism for these comparisons, or of attempting to deflect attention away from America’s systemic racism. Very often, however, the charge of whataboutism is used to deter comparative reasoning, which allows us to draw inferences about what works by comparing different situations. Such comparisons guard against utopianism because they give us a realistic sense of the possible. If no other society has achieved the kind of equity these critics demand of America, perhaps such results are not achievable, at least in the here and now. Given the grand failure of Marxism in the twentieth century, such comparisons remind us to proceed cautiously, to be highly suspicious of revolutionary rhetoric and to favour incremental progress over grand designs.
Furthermore, we should not conflate supremacy with the banal phenomenon of dominant culture. Every country and every institution has a dominant culture, even the most inclusive—though inclusive cultures welcome and rapidly integrate newcomers: they are more porous and easier to navigate. The new term whiteness refers, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to “the way that white people, their customs, culture, and beliefs operate as the standard by which all other groups are compared.” But such a definition applies to all cultures, which, by their very nature, prefer certain behaviours over others. The cultures of the white majority, however, are treated as a blight, as if the very existence of a majoritarian culture were inherently problematic and oppressive.
Imagine regarding the dominant culture in, say, Mexico or Ghana as inherently supremacist and using the terms Latinness or blackness to castigate people who exhibit the dominant cultural traits of those countries. If I, as a non-black newcomer to Ghana, found it difficult to integrate into Ghanaian society, would the obstacles constitute Ghanaian supremacy? Or might it be more useful to speak of cultural impediments to those who don’t belong to the majority culture? Being an outsider and feeling othered in the midst of a dominant group—for example when you’ve just joined a basketball team or on your first day at kindergarten—is probably a permanent feature of the human experience, not an expression of supremacy.
And what do we mean by white culture? White people are not a monolith and cultures differ significantly from place to place. A white-dominant group at a New York country club is very different from a white-dominant group in a small West Virginian town. A member of either group would find it challenging to culturally integrate into the other. Do both these cultures exhibit white supremacy? Similarly, would an insular black or Latino community be accused of supremacy? Of course, any of these groups might be exclusionary and could even be properly classified as supremacist if their members look down on outsiders as inferior. The test of their inclusiveness would be how readily they would welcome newcomers. By this criterion, the United States is far more inclusive than most other countries.
Another issue with the notion of supremacy is that it makes our problems seem beyond reach. The more society and its policymakers become consumed with grand ideologies that purport to explain everything, the less they will focus on addressing more granular problems with concrete solutions. If, for example, you view all policing as an instrument of white supremacy, you will probably not spend much time analysing the practices that can reduce police killings and improve police–community interactions. Instead of recommending enhanced firearms training, which police departments desperately need, you may push for implicit bias training, which studies indicate doesn’t work.
Emphasizing white supremacy is also a terrible roadmap for social change. It communicates to young black kids that they face insurmountable obstacles. Many will simply say the system is holding me down so why should I even try to succeed? A much more helpful message, belying the white supremacy argument, can be found in Barack Obama’s 2016 speech to Howard University graduates: “If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be … you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago … You’d choose right now.”
The white supremacy assertion seems almost designed to set the country back. Many white people who might otherwise be allies in the fight for positive change will be resentful of being labelled supremacists. This stokes right-wing identitarianism, which expresses itself in our electoral politics, which further exacerbate tensions. And it downplays the significant social progress already made, which undermines our collective resolve to face problems together.
Indeed, not only is the white supremacy label wrong, it’s dangerous. Economically successful minority groups such as Jews and Asians have already been tagged white adjacent and complicit in white supremacy. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that to maintain white supremacy, whites allow certain Asian and Latin American groups to become honorary whites and succeed, so they can ally with them in oppressing blacks and other, generally darker-skinned, Asian and Latin Americans. Such labels breeds resentment, demeaning rhetoric and even violence. If large swaths of society accept the supremacy ideology, which purports to explain all disparity between groups, those groups that do well in the face of such obstacles will naturally be deemed sell-outs to the supremacist order. As Tomiwa Owolade has pointed out, “if [structural inequalities] were necessarily because of race, this wouldn’t just mean that minorities with worse outcomes were racially disadvantaged. It would also imply that some minorities, like Jewish people, are racially privileged. (And remember: if you are racially privileged, you can’t be a victim of racism.)” This is a dangerous line of reasoning.
Of course, there are problems and disparities that should be addressed. There continues to be racism in American society and some individual institutions can be properly called racist or even supremacist. The criminal justice system, which disproportionately harms minorities, needs to be fixed. In some parts of the country, policies are being put in place that unnecessarily widen disparities and exacerbate racial tensions. The new voting law in Georgia, for example, makes it harder for members of minority communities to vote by implementing voter ID provisions and rendering mail-in voting more difficult. But as problematic as these policies are, they are nothing like the Chinese government’s anti-democratic onslaught on Hong Kong. Democracy is still alive and well in Georgia and minorities continue to have political rights.
It is crucial to place our problems in perspective. For if America is truly a white supremacist nation—rotten to its core—then it should be supplanted by an entirely different national concept. But if it is not—if, as I would argue, it is currently one of the best societies that humanity has to offer—we should go about improving it carefully and lovingly, as befits one of the world’s greatest democracies.