In a speech last month at Washington’s Martin Luther King Jr. monument, President Joe Biden described the January 6 insurrection as being about “white supremacy.” Later on, MSNBC did a segment on Thanksgiving in which guest commentator, Gyassi Ross, discussed its realities. Ross, who is Indigenous, sees it as the beginning of theft, genocide and “white supremacy.” After Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal, Colin Kaepernick tweeted, “white supremacy cannot be reformed.”
It seemed like the term had come out of nowhere. I decided to check Google Trends. From 2004 to about 2016, there were relatively few searches for the word “white supremacy.” Then in 2016, there was an increase in the frequency of searches, with several sharp spikes. Two of those spikes were in August 2017 and June 2020. What happened?
Donald Trump. One cannot say with certainty, but his rise, replete with far-right dog whistles and bullhorns, was probably explained by many writers through a lens of white supremacy. The spikes in search frequency in 2017 was probably because of Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally. In June 2020, it was likely due to George Floyd protests.
The January 6 insurrection. Thanksgiving. Kyle Rittenhouse. Donald Trump. Unite The Right. George Floyd. All of these phenomena are linked to something called white supremacy. As I suspect this term will be a part of common parlance for some time, it’s worth explaining it.
More nuance, more rejection
The way we identify and discuss racism has changed quite a bit. That’s because the way racism is expressed has changed quite a bit.
Inquiries into racism were more straightforward 30 or 40 years ago. First, you ask: “Do you hate people of a different race than you, yes or no?” If no, they’re not a racist. Then you looked at laws and asked: “Are any laws on the books explicitly discriminating against a racial group?” If there are no laws like that on the books, then there is no racism.
Now consider how racism is discussed today. It’s rather complicated. For individuals, racism is no longer only about conscious hate and clear cases of discrimination. It’s about implicit biases and seemingly benign behaviors that have racist consequences. The focus has shifted from laws and policies that discriminate to laws and policies that may not appear at first to be discriminatory but turn out to have disproportionate effects. Scholars look at how interlocking institutions work to produce unequal outcomes, like the much-discussed “school to prison pipeline” populated by poor young Black and brown men.
All things considered, this is a net positive. Learning more about how something happens -- in this case, racial inequality -- should be seen as a good thing. Unfortunately, it is not. That, however, is primarily due to people rejecting the political consequences of this scholarship and then doubling back to question the merits of that scholarship.
How we understand white supremacy followed a similar trajectory.
Maintaining the racial hierarchy
White supremacy has in the past meant the maintenance of a racial hierarchy with white people at the top. In a white supremacist society, white people have the most power and privilege. White supremacists actively attempt to maintain and perpetuate this hierarchy.
Liberal media outlets have linked the events surrounding Kyle Rittenhouse to white supremacy. This may seem to be a stretch for many. Or, as Briahna Joy Gray titled an episode of her “Bad Faith” podcast, “Has White Supremacy Jumped the Shark?”
Rittenhouse is the teen who armed himself with a semi-automatic rifle and drove from Antioch, Illinois, to a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He said he was going to guard a car dealership. Rittenhouse got into an altercation with protestors, killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and injuring a third, Gaige Grosskreutz. He faced several counts but was cleared of all of them.
Some say these events had nothing to do with race or white supremacy. Rittenhouse is white. He killed two white people. They will point out that in an interview with Tucker Carlson, Rittenhouse said, “I support the BLM movement.” You see, no white supremacy here.
They would be wrong.
White supremacy is about maintaining a racial hierarchy. How that is done changes over time. People may still imagine Klansmen must be present for there to be white supremacy. Again, that would be wrong.
The Rittenhouse saga reveals exactly how people attempt to maintain white supremacy. It is white supremacy without white supremacists.
A supportive right-wing media ecosphere
Let’s start with the night of the killings. The Kenosha Police seemed to ally themselves with the militia group Boogaloo Bois. According to a statement from Boogaloo Bois member Ryan Balch, the police told the militia group “that they were going to be pushing the protesters towards us because we could deal with them … KPD made a conscious decision to abandon the people of Kenosha to people they felt [were] justified in using machines and weapons of war against.”
Then in January, after pleading not guilty to all charges against him, Rittenhouse went to a bar and posed for photos with members of the Proud Boys, a group described as neo-fascist, and flashed what many people call a “white power” hand sign (the okay hand gesture).
In the months leading up to the trial over $600,00 was raised for Rittenhouse on the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo. This is not inherently problematic, as religious communities give all the time.
But the Blue Lives Matter flag on the page and the description “Kyle Rittenhouse just defended himself from a brutal attack by multiple members of the far-leftist group ANTIFA -- the experience was undoubtedly a brutal one” has a whiff of Christian nationalism.
During the trial, Judge Bruce Schroeder made several decisions that seemed to help Rittenhouse. He would not allow the two people killed, Rosenbaum and Huber, to be called victims. “Rioters. Arsonists. Looters. Refer to them that way,” he said. Despite visual evidence of a connection, he also would not allow the prosecution to connect Rittenhouse to the Proud Boys. He threw out two charges against the defendant, a curfew charge and a weapons possession charge.
And then there is the immediate aftermath. Far-right Congressmen Madison Cawthorn, Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar have offered Rittenhouse an internship. The Monday after the trial, Rittenhouse appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show, pleading his case and innocence before a supportive right-wing media ecosphere.
White supremacy without white supremacists
In the same way our understanding of racism has evolved, so has our understandings of white supremacy. How America’s racial hierarchy is maintained today is not the same as it was a century ago. In 2021, we don’t need white supremacists for there to be white supremacy.
Those Fox viewers tuning in to watch Rittenhouse’s interview with Carlson would say they were concerned with “upholding the right of self-defense.” The Proud Boys would say they are against “wokism.” People who contributed money to Rittenhouse’s crowdfund may say they are a “good Christian helping another good Christian.” The Kenosha police and Judge Schroeder may mutter something along the lines of “maintaining law and order.” The congressmen offering Rittenhouse an internship may say their concerns revolved around the “erosion of gun rights in this country” and so on.
That suggests an interest in maintaining the racial hierarchy.
It is a hierarchy where Black and brown people are at the bottom absorbing the lion’s share of the state-sanctioned violence meted out by hyper-aggressive police officers. Meanwhile, at the top of that hierarchy are white people who believe it’s their right to storm the Capitol to demand their chosen candidate be given the presidency.