The particularity of white supremacy

A common defensive move against critiques of the white power structure is to retreat into abstraction. Yes, it’s a shame that blacks are at such a disadvantage in white societies, but in every society, the majority places the minority at a disadvantage. If tables were turned, we’re assured, blacks would treat whites exactly the same way. The abstraction seamlessly gives way to naturalization: the way whites are behaving is a natural constant based on the very nature of human power relationships. We can all think of related examples: for instance, “many societies have had slavery,” a claim that attempts to defuse any argument that white enslavement of blacks was especially morally opprobrious — I mean, the ancient Greeks did it too!

In reality, though, white supremacy is a historically specific reality. It arose at a particular moment in history, growing out of a particular constellation of political and religious institutions, technological and economic developments, and time- and culture-bound ideologies. The very basis of white self-identification — the concept of race — was historically unique, as was the racial hierarchy by which whites legitimized the subordination of all other groups. Domination had been practiced before, but never in this precise form.

Similarly, it is true that various societies in the past have had slavery, but there were many factors in the white enslavement of blacks that were unique — and uniquely destructive. Race-based chattel slavery for life had never before been seen. The capture of slaves had never before been so systematic and regularized, much less carried out on such a large scale for such a long time. The absolute lack of any enforceable rights, particularly galling in the context of a society supposedly founded on principles of liberty and equality, was also a historical novelty compared to many familiar forms of slavery. One could even make the argument that to use the same word for the mainstream practice of Israelite, Greek, and Roman slavery and for modern slavery is misleading.

Why is this relevant? Because it renders the claim that the new boss will be just like the old boss almost completely indefensible. If another group or coalition of groups establishes dominance over whites, it will have arisen in conditions very different from those under which white supremacy originated. One of those new conditions will be the experience of having been a subaltern group (or groups) in the white racial hierarchy — a condition which their social position will give them a much more realistic view of than is typically accessible for those who have undergone mainstream white socialization processes. Given that these new rulers will be human beings, one can reasonably hope that they will not, at least as a rule, want to simply “turn the tables” and impose a condition they know to be dehumanizing and destructive on others. (Personal vengeance is a human impulse, too, but the entire basis for civil society is to restrain its pursuit.) Examples from individual countries, such as South Africa, tend to support this conclusion.

Indeed, the white supremacist order is so uniquely bad from a broad historical perspective that it seems reasonable to hope that its successor regime — should such a thing arise before our rulers completely destroy the material conditions of human life, which I am not entirely hopeful of — would be less bad, simply on the basis of statistical probability.

Posted in race. 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “The particularity of white supremacy”

  1. bob mcmanus Says:

    Having just finished Geoffrey de Ste Croix, I would say the example of Rome was to change from an ethnically narrow 5% to an ethnically and socially diverse and more geographically distributed ruling class (and even more concentrated); and to raise slaves and lower “freeman” (small farmers;lower middle class) to the same legal and social condition of serfdom with great pressures on the upper middle class.

  2. Henry K. Says:

    Though I agree with much of what you say about the historical/cultural specificity of white supremacy, I’m a little wary of supposing that those who’ve been subalterns will be more humane when in positions of dominance. The case that springs to mind is Israel, where the majority of the population has been brought up to identify with (though mostly they themselves were not) the victims of the Shoah – yet this apparently does little to prevent systemic oppression of the Palestinians. Admittedly, the Palestinians were not the perpetrators of the Shoah; but the Mufti of al-Quds’ friendship with the Nazis is often brought out as a justification for Israeli hatred of Palestinians.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In the context of Palestine, the Western-backed Jewish settlers were not subaltern, nor are contemporary Jewish Israelis. It’s not a comparable situation, because they’re not taking over territory in which they were the subaltern.

  4. Some Guy Says:

    If you have not read it already I would recommend checking out “Race over Empire: Racism and U.S. Imperialism”. Its a good example of how the new boss was definitely not like the old boss and how illusory ideas like the “white man’s burden” was. You can check out the preface here

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