Exploring White Supremacy

Against the Current, No. 224, May/June 2023

Bill V. Mullen

A Field Guide to White Supremacy
Edited by Kathleen Belew and Ramón A. Gutiérrez
University of California Press, 2022. 424 pages, $24.95 paper.

IT’S A WELCOME thing for the Left when a University press publishes a book on racism intended to influence “journalists, activists, policy makers and citizens.”

Kathleen Belew and Ramón Gutiérrez are scholars on a mission to make a dent in public discourse about the scourge of white supremacy that has beset the United States from inception to present. Their edited book, A Field Guide to White Supremacy, has the flavor of a call to arms, put together in the incendiary period between George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and the January 6th, 2021 Capitol riot.

It promises to “train observers” to recognize “variant forms of white supremacy, ranging from systems to laws, from hate crimes to quiet indifference.” It even offers a set of revisions to the Associated Press Stylebook’s way of talking about race, in order to literally disrupt the discourse in the U.S. about white supremacy, which the editors define as “both individual belief that white people are inherently better than others and the broad systems of inequality that insure racial disparity of health, income, life, and freedom.”

Belew and Gutiérrez are well-positioned toward these admirable ambitions. Belew is the author of the very fine book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Military America, a contemporary history of the relationship between white power in the United States, war, militias and militarism.

Gutiérrez has written extensively on race, gender and sexuality in Latin America and among Latina/os in the United States, and is professor emeritus of history at the University of Chicago. Belew is a professor of history at Northwestern University.

To a large extent, their book succeeds in its aim of breaching the public sphere. It is comprised of 19 essays ranging from figures prominently recognizable within the academy (Judith Butler, Joseph E. Lowndes, Roderick Ferguson) to writers with more popular reach like Rebecca Solnit, Jamelle Bouie, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

Overall, the selections are lucid, written for a broad audience, and sometimes brief, like journalistic bulletins.

Belew and Gutiérrez also give the book a public-facing feel with an Introduction framing the collection around Trump and Trumpism, the rise of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and the January 6th riot, which they call a “domestic terror attack on U.S. democracy,” as well as a conclusion which returns to the January 6 events.

Acts of racist violence in Charlottesville, Charleston, and Pittsburgh are cited as evidence that “White Power has now attacked us all, and we all hold this in common.”

Wide Reach of White Supremacy

Perhaps to represent that universalism, A Field Guide is divided into four thematic headings meant to illuminate the wide valence and reach of white supremacy.

Section I, “Building, Protecting, and Profiting from Whiteness,” is organized around three concepts meant to serve as historical frameworks: settler colonialism, extractive colonialism, defined as when “the colonizers seek only to take wealth and resources back to their country,” and racial capitalism, “the idea that capitalism and white supremacy have been intertwined since their inception.”

The section offers to merge colonialism and racial capitalism, whereas they have often been seen by scholars as “distinct.”

To that end, the Section includes essays by Doug Kiel on indigenous land recovery and taxation on the Oneida Nation reservation; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on a “culture of racism” excerpted from her important book From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation; Juan Perea on slave codes and mass deportations; and Khaled A. Beydoun on “The Arc of American Islamophobia.”

Of these, Beydoun’s offers the most novel and far-reaching historical account of white supremacy as a series of restrictions and preclusions of Muslim citizenship dating from the 1790 Naturalization Act to Trump’s notorious “Muslim Ban.” The essays share a general throughline of interest in the role of state law in demarcating boundaries between white and non-white citizenship.

Section II, “Iterations of White Supremacy,” particularizes the relationships between racism and gender violence (Solnit), “Anti-Asian Violence” (Simeon Man), “Homo­phobia and Nationalism” (Ferguson on the Pulse Nightclub shootings), violence against “Trans Women/Femmes” (Croix Saffin) and antisemitism (Butler).

The section is loosely tethered under a framework of “intersectionality,” the term popularized by critical legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s analysis of interlocking systems of exploitation and oppression. The section also targets the relationship between patriarchy and white supremacy as demonstrated by far right groups like Proud Boys which dragged their misogyny with them to the Capitol riot.

Section III, “Anti-Immigration,” more tightly coheres around xenophobia, border policing, and what scholar Adam Goodman calls in his essay the U.S. “Deportation Machine.” Leo R. Chavez’s essay “Fear of White Replacement” admirably demonstrates how far-right paranoia about white population reduction is directly linked to phobia about demographic and biological reproduction of immigrants.

Cindy Goodman and Jessica Orduz both commemorate the effects of anti-immigrant policies on lost immigrant and refugee lives. The section’s focus on contemporary immigration history helps explicate the rise of today’s far right as a substream within state and two-party alignment over anxieties about a fading white republic, a keynote of Trump’s 2016 election appeals.

Section IV, “White Supremacy from Fringe to Mainstream,” is a useful collective genealogy of the contemporary far right.

It begins with Gutiérrez’s retrieval of state-sponsored postwar white social welfare like the discriminatory GI Bill, and includes Joseph E. Lowndes’ fine-grained analysis of the rise of ultraconservatism within the Republican Party, beginning with the 1980s ascent of Pat Buchanan.

Nicole Hemmer demonstrates how the Charlottesville far-right torch parade was nurtured by online organizing. Joseph Darda’s illuminating essay examines how the pro-policing or “Blue Lives Matter” movement effectively coded cop work as a de facto form of white identity politics.

The final essay is a strong excerpt from Belew’s book on the rise of the white power militia movement which dates in part to the federal government assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, a site the now-indicted Trump just used to help re-launch his crypto white supremacist campaign for President in 2024.

Facts like the latter help lend immediacy, prophecy and gravitas to Gutiérrez and Belew’s nomination of their conclusion to the volume as a “History of the Present.” Indeed, the book’s greatest success is its seeming ability to collate, in the hours before the latest white supremacist American midnight of January 6, a long foreshadowing of and preamble to that event.

If anything, reporting on the Capitol riot in its aftermath underscores and amplifies the thesis of the volume: Luke Mogelson’s New Yorker essays, for example, documenting how a month prior to storming the capitol, white supremacists marched through Washington D.C. to protest the Supreme Court’s refusal to overturn the election results, on the way terrorizing Black residents of D.C. and tearing down Black Lives Matter signs.

A complementary volume to this one could trace the symbiotic rise of Black Lives Matter as the instigating moving target for groups like Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.

Toward a Wider Framework

But this urgency to narrate and scramble to check the boxes of U.S. white supremacy also files down the volume’s analytic sharpness. For example, the book’s above quoted definition of white supremacy — “both individual belief that white people are inherently better than others and the broad systems of inequality that insure racial disparity of health, income, life, and freedom” — seems more like a timeless expression of an old idea rather than a new understanding shaped by the events, and contemporary period, the book lives in.

Missing from the volume’s framing, for example, is a literature review of the capacious writing on white supremacy, fascism and neo-fascism about that same contemporary period. This would include books like Enzo Traverso’s The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right; Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, or David Renton’s The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Far Right.

The benefit of engagement with work of this kind is that it analyzes white supremacy within larger political frameworks (especially neoliberalism) white situating contemporary racism in the trajectory within which it often sees itself, for example Richard Spencer and the so-called “alt-right’s” infatuation with the idea of Nazism. Recall Spencer’s “Hail Trump — Hail Our People” salute at the far-right conference in Washington not long after Trump’s election.

Indeed, Belew and Gutiérrez’s volume seems determined not to fold white supremacy into political traditions it clearly belongs to, like fascism, tending to isolate it as a form of prejudice and inequality (see their definition). This tendency can lead to an exceptionalism of U.S. racism divorced from its global dimensions (including those of fascism) that recent scholarship has done much to complicate or refute. (See Hitler’s American Model. The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, James Q. Whitman, Princeton University Press, 2017.)

The unwillingness to fully theorize U.S. white supremacy is most notable in the book’s Introduction and first section where three differing paradigms — settler-colonialism, extractive colonialism, and racial capitalism — are all proffered as causality. Yet these paradigms are left rather flat-footedly self-explanatory by the editors.

There is, for example, no engagement with Cedric Robinson’s own body of writing and thought on white supremacy (and fascism) within his formulation of “racial capitalism.” Or, for example, with George Frederickson’s important historical work on settler white supremacy in a comparative framework.

A more robust engagement with the theoretical mechanisms intended to explain the volume, in other words, would have allowed a deeper and more convincing analysis of where and how exactly white supremacy has been a constant specter on the landscape of the United States.

Doing so would also raise the question very germane to the activists the book seeks to reach about how to understand and organize against white supremacy. This leitmotif of the Black Lives Matter movement is suggested by Taylor’s essay but could have been more robustly engaged with by writing from activist communities. See for example Jason Perez or William C. Anderson and Zoe Samudzi’s As Black As Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation.

The book might also have tapped the organizing writings of BLM leaders like Mariame Kaba or abolitionist theorists like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who have made understanding of the prison-industrial complex, policing and the courts central to our understanding of how white supremacy functions as technologies of power.

Indeed, the Field Guide premise suggests an opportunity and duty to survey and document the contours of new mass protests against white supremacy. Put another way, if we are living through a renaissance of revanchist white supremacy in the era of Trump and post-Trump America, we are also living in a period of anti-racist aspiration and restoration.

That said, A Field Guide to White Supremacy does constitute a lightning strike against any complacency within or without the academy that racism is merely Trumpism, or that both are somehow “over” since the 2020 election.

If anything, the regroupment of white supremacist ground forces and their penetration into the ranks of the Republican Party’s attack on “wokism,” state-level endeavors to ban the teaching of critical race theory, and the rampant, unceasing, and increasing numbers of people murdered by U.S. police since the George Floyd killing demand — as Belew and Gutiérrez implore us — that the battle against white supremacy is and must be “held in common” as part of larger struggle to end capitalist and state-sponsored violence, especially against the most vulnerable members of U.S. society.

May-June 2023, ATC 224

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