The Casual White Supremacy of Mainstream America

by Neil H. Buchanan

I grew up thinking that what I saw around me was normal.  There were plenty of reasons to think that this was true.  I am a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant.  I grew up in a suburb of a medium-sized midwestern industrial city.  I am a Baby Boomer.  Long before half-term Governor Sarah Palin joined the disgusting effort to try to turn the words "real America" into a political weapon, it was difficult for people like me to think of America as anything but people like us and places that seemed familiar to us.  The culture reflected us, and no one questioned it very much.

That is not to say that we were unaware of differences, of course.  We knew about cities, but when I was growing up, most American cities were emptying out, with White Flight and the beginnings of industrial decline making racial differences between cities and suburbs even more difficult not to notice.  And it is not as though people like me thought of our lives as better than everyone else's -- or even all that good.  In fact, we thought of our lives as boring, vanilla, and stultifying. Bruce Springsteen was from a somewhat lower economic class, but there is a reason that his songs about getting the hell out of this lousy town resonated with tens of millions of alienated people.

Today, the world reels from the latest act of white supremacist mass murder, this time in New Zealand, but really it could have happened in any of the obvious countries, certainly here in the U.S.  As I have read various commentaries on this tragedy, especially Jamelle Bouie's excellent New York Times op-ed, "The March of White Supremacy, From Oklahoma City to Christchurch," I was reminded of a bit of family lore that I occasionally share as a lighthearted moment but that includes an element of cultural context that is revealing about Americans' assumptions about race.

I wrote a column with the upbeat version of the story almost ten years ago here on Dorf on Law.  It seems that the small religious college where my parents met (nestled in the rolling hills of northeastern Ohio) had indirectly caused me to come into being.  I mean that in a more specific way than simply that I would not have been born if my parents had never met, and the story is actually rather fascinating.

My parents were in their senior year of college in 1946-47, with my father being one of the millions of men coming back to civilian life after being on the winning side of World War II.  In the Fall of that academic year, the college called an assembly for all of the Senior women, 20- and 21-year-olds who were mostly already engaged or likely to marry soon.  The speaker was the chairman of the Sociology Department, and he had a grim message to deliver.

Noting the carnage of the war, he announced that "the human race is in danger of dying out" unless every woman henceforth had four children.  My mother and her best friend, along with surely everyone gathered in that chapel, were deeply shaken.  As they left, the two friends told each other that they could not count on all women to pull their own weight, so it was probably a good idea for each of them to have five kids, just in case.  And they did.

I usually tell that story for two reasons.  The most direct reason, and the most personally amusing, is that I am that fifth kid.  If it were not for a badly misinformed social scientist, I like to say, I would never have come into being.  The other reason is that this provides some context for the Baby Boom.  Surely, the College of Wooster is not the only place where fertile young people were being told to go forth and procreate at levels previously unseen.  The evidence is in the birth tables.  Although the Baby Boom is no longer the largest age cohort in the U.S., the birthrate combined with a higher survival rate for children created the generation that still dominates the world.

That was the point of my 2009 column, in which I discussed the ongoing debates about the Baby Boomers' retirements, Medicare, Social Security, and all of that.  But in the second paragraph of that column, I also offered this parenthetical thought about my mother's story:
"Note: Upon hearing this for the first time, my immediate comment was that the professor really had to mean 'the white race' and not 'the human race.' My mother replied quite honestly that she did not know what he meant and that the listeners -- almost all of whom were white Anglo-Saxon protestants -- probably did not stop to think about the distinction, either. This was pre-Civil Rights era, among other things."
World War II saw something like 75 million people killed.  That was approximately three percent of the population, which is horrifying, but it in no way put the human race on a downward spiral from which it could only recover if people consciously decided to have more children than they otherwise would have been inclined to have.  By 1950, the world's population was 250 million larger (more than ten percent) than it had been in 1940, which means either that the last three years of the decade had a lot of people listening to Wooster sociologists or that the danger of species death was never serious.

But again, it is obvious what was happening in that chapel on that day.  Certainly, a lot of nonwhite people had died in the war -- especially, and obviously, in the Pacific Theater, which was the motivation for the shameful U.S. policy of putting Japanese-American citizens into internment camps (leading to the infamous Korematsu decision) -- but for people in Real America it looked like a war among white people.  Northern Europeans and their colonial progeny were killing each other by the millions.

Of course, this also meant that Americans and people in other allied countries tried to revive racist themes against Germans, treating them as if they were not truly white.  After all, in a world where 1995's How the Irish Became White is still a fascinating historical study, we are reminded that race is a social construct, and it is always possible to define one's enemies into an inferior category.

Bouie's point, which I think is essential, is that the blase kinds of white supremacist attitudes that we see in everyday life create the atmosphere that allows the more extreme versions of violent white supremacy to grow.  He writes:
"If the United States and other western democracies have a recurring problem with white power and white supremacist violence, it’s because they grow out of habits and assumptions that are still embedded in our societies. The extremists who dream of a white ethno-state aren’t too far removed to the more ordinary people who see no problem with (and even defend) continued segregation of schools and neighborhoods. The people who target mosques at home are channeling our disregard for Muslim lives abroad. Settler societies built on the removal and extermination of native peoples will produce ideologies that treat those actions as good, even laudatory."
Throughout our history, it has been all too easy for people in positions of power (even relatively trivial ones, like college professors) to say "people" when they mean "white people."  Even Donald Trump's "make American great again" mantra is clearly designed to remind his older, white base of the 1950's, when America was pretty great only for white people -- or, for that matter, really only for white men.

What felt normal to me as I was growing up was a still-segregated America where other people had problems that I did not need to know about, and cities were riot zones that we watched in horrified fascination on the news.  As Bouie points out, most of America is still highly segregated, and there are plenty of people who still fight tooth and nail to have de facto segregated schools and neighborhoods.

Things have definitely improved in a lot of ways since the middle of the Twentieth Century, but casual white supremacy survives and thrives to this day.  We treat white supremacist terrorists as something other than terrorists (mentally ill, and so on).  We started a war in Iraq because of a terrorist attack that Iraq had no part in, but as someone pointed out at the time, we did not invade Western New York State because Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) was from there.  Law enforcement to this day fails to track white supremacist violence with anything close to the vigor that we bring to tracking violence by nonwhites and non-Christians.

White supremacy is a menace, and one of the major reasons that we are having so much trouble thinking about how to handle it is that too many people think of White Christians as "people" and everyone else as, at best, "also people."  The assumptions and attitudes run deep, and although the violence is thankfully still rare, the quiet oppression of the also-people is real and persistent.