Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, March 22, 2021, The New Republic, How partisans on all sides overlook the brutal legacies of white supremacy
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“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us … history is literally present in all that we do.”—James Baldwin, 1965
In the weeks since the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a lie-emboldened mob of Trump-branded insurrectionists, many political leaders and mainstream pundits across the political spectrum have assiduously sought to displace white supremacy’s starring role in the attack. On the far right, those who stormed the Capitol to “Make America Great Again” understood themselves to be patriots—asserting their standing as supercitizens, unbound by either election results or civil legal restraints, thanks to their privileged relation to American politics as a white propertied project.
In response, hand-wringing moderate commentators reached for their well-worn “this is not who we are” response. Their plea to conjure up the better angels of American memory amounted to a séance for the countless lives lost in the overthrow of Reconstruction’s multiracial democracy. Meanwhile, left pundits debated the “are we there yet?” question by looking to European history to find out whether January 6 signaled the onset of fascist decline. Neatly sidestepping the centuries-long reign of white supremacy in America that fed and sustained distinctly fascist currents in our politics long before Kristallnacht and long after the fall of the Third Reich, they inadvertently revived the same amnesiac refrain that prompted Langston Hughes to note, in 1937, “We Negroes in America do not have to be told what fascism is in action. We know. Its theories of Nordic supremacy and economic suppression have long been realities to us.”
Indeed, each story line on the Capitol insurgency—particularly from the left and center—reflects a great deal of bowdlerized history, especially when it comes to the enduring legacies of American racial terror. This denialism bespeaks a broader failure to face up to the real nature of white supremacy across the political spectrum. Even at this late date, our commentariat overwhelmingly treats white supremacy as an over-there topic that warrants cursory interrogation and minimalist intervention—an excusable affliction of prejudice, an ancillary dimension of class power, or the distant echo of a long-ago social order with secondary significance in today’s crisis. Only the far right takes white supremacy onboard directly as its stolen birthright, and even the Confederate flag–wavers in its ranks routinely often deny that the “way of life” it symbolizes was grounded in defending the dehumanization of Black people.
To understand how explicitly anti-democratic desires can be framed as defending freedom, as well as how moderate and left responses to this political violence seem to underestimate its continuity from the past and its threat to our future, we have to grapple with the foundational role of white supremacy in our republic. Indeed, the drafters of our Constitution sanctioned the very notions of security and property as racialized interests hardwired into our political system. As a result, subsequent actions seeking to dismantle this legacy have been framed as illegitimate, preferential, and deeply threatening to the social order. The retraction of entitlements that were once taken for granted within a white supremacist order not only spurs vigilante violence; it also infects the color and code of law enforcement itself.
This racialized construction of law and order explains the jaw-dropping difference in the fully militarized response to Black Lives Matter protests and the collegial escort of the insurrectionists out of the ransacked Capitol. To begin to address this obscene disparity between those who marched to uphold the republic’s ideals and those who spilled blood to overthrow them, we must grapple with the fact that whiteness—not a simplistic racial categorization, but a deeply structured relationship to social coercion and group entitlement—remains a vibrant dimension of power in America.
As Cheryl Harris, David Roediger, and others have argued, property in whiteness has long served as a critical source of sociopolitical status. As a robust ideology, it ties wildly conflicting cross-class interests into a political stranglehold denying any sustainable and actionable sort of racial or socioeconomic equality. The cry of law and order has wrapped this family bond into a repetitive refrain in modern American politics, obscuring the violent ways in which a racialized underclass has been repeatedly disenfranchised and disciplined by the dictates of a white majority. The murderous January 6 insurrection furnished a snapshot of this racialized model of social order that’s long been familiar to America’s racialized others. Under this hermetic system of repression, white disorder simply does not compute as an existential threat to the republic. Even though the nation was nearly destroyed by the treasonous explosion of white rage in the Civil War, the would-be cautionary tale about the mortal threat of a fully weaponized supremacist agenda has largely remained, in the words of President Woodrow Wilson, a “quarrel forgotten.”
Thanks to the privileges and immunities of whiteness, those who have credibly questioned its hold—dreamers like Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton, and Malcolm X—were targeted, surveilled, and martyred before they reached the age of 40, while white supremacist agitators and murderers lived long lives as their suit-and-tie enablers brokered power in an unrepentant republic. To this day, racial justice advocacy comes with risks that few white nationalists will ever know—even those who kill. Kyle Rittenhouse has largely resumed his life; protesters from Ferguson to D.C. who took no one’s life have been arrested, dragged through the legal system, and even killed.
At the center of this twisted notion of law and order is the nation’s hagiographic self-narrative of being “born perfect and improving ever since.” Dominant in popular and political culture, this ideological mythmaking was scaffolded into political discourse over a century ago by the likes of the filmmaker D.W. Griffith. Still heralded as the father of American film, Griffith supplied a vigilant defense of the Confederacy’s Lost Cause mythos in The Birth of a Nation, which was purportedly hailed by President Wilson as “like writing history with lightning.” This propaganda offensive has hidden in plain sight in textbooks throughout the twentieth century, and in rituals that celebrate the American nation’s supposedly unbroken commitment to freedom and justice for all—a story that again demands a virtual conspiracy of silence about that ugly little matter called the Civil War.
The go-to performance of national unity—the national anthem—works only by forgetting that Francis Scott Key’s ringing homage to “the land of the free and the home of the brave” savagely excluded the Black Americans whom he enslaved. And it was those same Black Americans whom Key’s brother-in-law, Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, declared in Dred Scott v. Sandford to be so inferior, so debased, that they could never be part of the republic he lauded.
The long-mythologized story of American innocence, white redemption, and moral superiority is fully of a piece with the deification of the Founding Fathers themselves. And as searingly marked by the 1776 Commission’s response to the 1619 Project, any deviation from this beatification invites bitter and immediate reprisal. Today’s backlash against the sacrilegious unearthing of slavery lurking in the shadows of America’s miraculous birth recalls a moment following the celebration of the Constitution’s bicentennial, when the right demanded the resignation of Thurgood Marshall from the Supreme Court. His sin? Reminding the starry-eyed celebrants that the rights they valorized didn’t flow from the flawed 1787 Constitution—the document that recognized and insulated slavery—but from the amended Constitution that emerged from a cataclysmic war and decades of struggle.
A more complete expression of the facts of American history urgently underlines the question of why we’re unable to grasp in full how the founding racial dispensation surrounds and defines virtually every issue in our public life. There’s clearly a deep and ongoing cognitive incapacity to recognize the lethal handiwork of white supremacy. And this repression of national trauma blockades any real reckoning with the racial disparities of the Covid pandemic’s death numbers, the color of our nation’s inmates, or the demographic makeup of our most vulnerable citizens.
The chronic failure to confront the monsters of our past is not destiny; it’s a daily choice to accept American myth in the face of so much countervailing evidence. We are choosing and choosing again to return to a fantasy of our national virtue. Yet our return to that fantasy is what ensures that another moment or another generation will be forced to confront the ugly and overlapping legacies of genocide, slavery, and apartheid. To break this cycle—to imagine ourselves otherwise—we have to take up the failures of the dominant intellectual zeitgeist and ground the American narrative on a different plane.
A critical engagement with race in America means repudiating the fantasies of immaculate conception. It urges us to resist the corresponding desire to simply walk away from the scene of the crime and declare that the many still-thriving legacies of white supremacy are over and done with. By these lights, it’s just class that underwrites resentment. Reckoning with race, on the other hand, means understanding white supremacy as a foundational form of social power.
White disorder tells us something about how our national mythology continues to naturalize and defend immense racial and democratic inequalities. Law, politics, culture, and economic policy should be mobilized to interrupt the toxic expectations grounded in the nation’s foundations and to cease indulging, excusing, and rebranding the white grievances that fuel anti-democratic forces. Indeed, to build a nation that is a better reflection of our expressed ideals, we have to imagine a different baseline from which conceptions of justice and democracy flow—a baseline not beholden to the legacies of genocide and slavery but one of a republic reborn as a multiracial democracy.
Among other things, the second Senate acquittal of Donald Trump stands as another deadly moment in which we the nation turned away and shrugged before the specter of a racialized effort to overthrow our representative democracy. As a result, the heartbeat of white supremacy endures and gives life to new and brutal forms of repression and denial. Even though the Capitol uprising afforded a telling glimpse of its fascist visage, this homegrown monster can still claim salvation through bipartisan deliverance. As its staunchest defenders pretend it doesn’t exist, it eludes apprehension from those who have convinced themselves that the utter destruction that white supremacy enables couldn’t quite happen here—even though it already has. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw @sandylocks
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is the founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum.
If we took the time and all got a lot smarter about how the treatment of Native Americans set wheels in motion that affect us all through to the present.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. (Screen grab via GRITtv)The false narrative of Columbus “discovering” the Americas still pervades history books and the Eurocentric mindset of the United States. Learn the true history of what author and professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz calls the legacy of Columbus’ voyages: the annihilation and conquest of Native Americans.
An injury to one is an injury to all, the old labor slogan goes. What if we applied that idea to US indigenous history? How does the history of genocide affect all people in the United States even today?
This week, as some in the United States mark Indigenous People’s Day, author and professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz suggests that while remembering native history is good, it would be far better if we took the time and all got a lot smarter about how the treatment of Native Americans set wheels in motion that affect us all through to the present.
In her new book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, longtime author-activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz corrects the record: The precolonial continent wasn’t untamed, uncultivated: “There was a road from Alaska down to southern Mexico; roads that [went] from east to west, north to south . . . Not paths . . . not roads just for hunting paths or migrations.” These were trade routes, reports Dunbar-Ortiz. “They had stops; they had places to stay . . . And trade items from central Mexico ended up in what is now Quebec and the Great Lakes area and vice versa.”
Before colonial capitalism, there existed what she calls “indigenous socialism.” The destruction of that economy through war, denial of self-determination, dispossession, criminalization and violence against women affected no group more than indigenous people, but they weren’t the only ones.
Colonialism, she argues, served as “an escape valve for the mother country.” Peasants thrown off their lands with the enclosure of the commons were assuaged with an offer of land “where they could be lord,” she says. But poor settlers too were “duped.” “Corporations are predators to everyone now,” she said.
Understanding indigenous history not only reveals a lot about how we all live and why; reconnecting the dots of this history gives glimpses of alternatives and ways, she suggests, to, as Naomi Klein says, “change everything.” Dunbar-Ortiz traces her own heritage to Oklahoma white settlers and to Cherokees. Her other books include Red Dirt, Growing Up Okie, Outlaw Woman and Blood on the Border, A Memoir of the Contra War. The video of our conversation can be seen on The Laura Flanders show at GRITtv.org, or on Telesur English. The text has been edited lightly for publication.
Laura Flanders: I got [the message] very strongly that this isn’t necessarily a book for indigenous people. They may well know this history. It’s for the rest of us. Why is it needed?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: It’s for everyone to understand, for the settlers, for the immigrants, to understand indigenous people’s experience of the United States and point of view. As a historian, I really wanted to call it the True History of the United States because it’s not just that there are two points of view. There are the colonizer and the colonized, but do you really want to identify with the colonizers?
Yet that’s exactly what our history for the most has done. What’s different when you look at it from the colonized point of view?
First of all, you see the United States founded as a settler state. It’s a republic; it’s called a republic. The French called their republic a republic, but it was still a colonizer – colonized Algeria and Vietnam – but the United States, of course, is exceptional. It could not possibly be a settler state; it could not possibly be imperialist; it’s rescuing people, helping people. The very first emblem of the Puritans when they came over was a very tired, weary looking native person with a kind of limp bow and arrow saying, “please come help us, come save us.”
Hence that very typical idea that this was a land without people or culture, that needed the civilization that the settlers would bring. . . .
This was Zionism, and this was the new Jerusalem. The Puritans had a whole philosophy and ideology of this being a place given to them by their god.
Different from South America, we’re led to believe in our history books that here was no culture that you could see, like the Aztecs or the Incas. Instead there were roaming bands of people on horseback . . .
. . . in an untamed forest, a vast wilderness that had not been tamed. Of course, it’s not true at all. The valley of Mexico influenced both south and north, the birth of civilization sort of like in the Old World: the Tigris and the Euphrates in Egypt, and it went everywhere. Corn and the farming went all the way up to the Great Lakes, to [the Northeast] and to the Sub-Arctic. Ninety-nine percent of the indigenous population in North America were farmers who lived in towns and had grain storages, and very sophisticated governance.
The roads are the most amazing thing. Until I did this book, I had known about the roads in the Southwest (they are very connected to central Mexico), because that’s my [area of specialization]. I had no idea that there was a road from Alaska down to southern Mexico – the Pan-American Highway today; roads crisscrossing that [went] from east to west, north to south in every direction. They were all trade routes. They were not paths; they were not roads just for hunting paths or migrations. There were roads that were used. They had stops; they had places to stay. They had markets and trade, and trade items from central Mexico ended up in what is now Quebec and the Great Lakes area and vice versa. All of those artifacts tell you there was this enormous amount of trade, and in general, the Toltecs, before the Aztecs, created turquoise as the means of exchange. So they had monetary systems.
It’s fascinating. I learned so much from this book, I have to say, so thank you for the many years you put into writing it. You write repeatedly that you cannot talk about capitalism in the US without talking about colonialism.
Well, in general, I think you cannot talk about capitalism without colonialism. Even Marx said that the primary accumulation of capital came from the looting of the Americas and the enslavement of the Africans and of native peoples. In the first century of Spanish-Portuguese colonization, native slavery was legal. It was replaced by African slavery. Once the church wanted to enslave the natives, have them build their missions and so forth.
It’s interesting you say that even the colonial class, many of them were people who had been, if not enslaved, at least dispossessed inside the colonial countries. Originally, the not-very-United Kingdom.
Yes, the United Kingdom and in Spain. Those who were displaced by the fencing of the commons all over Europe and England were without any means of income and they were thrown into labor in the textile mills as sheep became a commodity.
The landless peasants who maybe harvested berries in the forest or grazed their livestock on the lord’s land, were made pretty vulnerable, particularly vulnerable to a promise that land could be theirs.
It solves, as Peter Linebaugh writes, it solves a contradiction between the creation of the landless possibly volatile class of people who are very angry about their dispossession, so offer them land far away and they too can be a lord. It’s an escape valve for the mother country, and then when the United States – when it’s a republic – uses its colonization on the rest of the continent as an escape valve from a volatile, unhappy, lower class.
Don’t make trouble here. Go west.
Right. Find some land and it will be your own.
You said “motherland,” but you also talk about patriarchy.
The oppression of women, of course, goes back – the division of labor and so forth. In Europe and in England, women had a lot of authority pre-Catholic, pre-church times, of being the medicine people, of being the farmers, the people who kept the seeds, the spiritual people. There were some men, but this was mainly a woman’s role – sort of the intellectual class. With the fencing of the commons and the Crusades, the lords and the monarchy, and the church targeted then these people of pre-Catholic religious practices and this is the burning and killing of the witches, millions of people, mostly women were killed.
A large proportion of whom were called witches for failure to pay rent? Why is it important to tell this story and for us to understand it today, we who are not indigenous people?
We need to understand what a settler state is and the role we play. I mean half my family are settlers, Scotch-Irish on the Dunbar side. I’ve really studied this sort of family history and they were among the losers on the frontier who ended up in Oklahoma. You could not make a living farming; you could not compete with the plantation and slavery, so you were subordinate to them as a tenant or sharecropper because they kept eating up land – and yet they kept their hope. They would go to the next frontier and they were going to make it this time, so they end up in Oklahoma and then the dust bowl and everyone is dispossessed, and they go to California. So, I know that story very well, yet the consciousness that’s there is that this is still possible. There is still this sense that there is the American dream.
But your other side are Cherokee?
Yes, so I have a split personality, but I can see both sides. I have a lot of sympathy for people who were duped and they don’t like to think that they were duped, but they were duped. I just think it’s very liberating to know the truth. I really believe in that old adage, the truth will make you free.
You still haven’t explained how that settler history and the consciousness and that tradition plays out now or affects us now?
Look at the Tea Party. Those are people who want that dream back. They are mostly descendants of the old settlers. Spain had its own settlers too. Not being Jewish and not being Muslim meant you could be an old settler and you had a certain nobility. So there’s this sense, there was also an ideology created of nationalism during the Andrew Jackson era of the old settlers being actually the indigenous people. Not only this idea of manifest destiny and Zion, but also that the Indians are fading away and they present to us settlers as in Last of the Mohicans: Now it’s yours, we’ve had our time; it is now your land to take care of. That is a very strong mentality that they are the indigenous. Just like the Afrikaners in South Africa.
It also speaks to me of the reality that we’ve had experiences of different economic systems in the United States on this territory, on this continent. Going back and thinking about the pre-capitalist culture is liberating, also in the sense that you stop equating “civilization” with a particular economic system. There was another one.
Yes, and it was socialistic. Indigenous socialism. Collectively – this is why native property wasn’t recognized: Because it was collectively owned and then they tried to allot it. They literally put in the Dawes Act (the Allotment Act) that selfishness had to be created for civilization to flourish among the native people. The other aspect that I think that we have to be aware of is that every inch of territory that is now the United States was taken by warfare. War on the native people, many of these were genocidal wars, and in every case, native people resisted in one way or another to stay on their land: they don’t just give up. In this 300 years of warfare, 100 of it under the United States republic preceded by 200 years of settler-colonial warfare, most of it by local armed militias, a certain kind of warfare developed that was the root and foundation of the US military. Acted out time and again: you look at Vietnam, it resonated so much with the Indian wars. They even use a lot of the same terminology that they used, like “Indian Country.”
There is so much more in the book and I really encourage people to really look at it. You are pretty critical of corporations and foundations and their relationship to native land and native issues. Do you want to talk about that?
Corporations are predators to everyone now, but native people are kind of the canaries in the mine in the 19th century. The United States government – which had a federal trust responsibility under the treaties to protect native land from outsiders, from settlers coming in or companies coming in – instead did the opposite and would give leases and give contracts without consulting the native people. So the corporations ran rampant from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In Oklahoma, it was mainly petroleum and mining. All through the West, mining and seizing land, simply transferring it or making native land into so-called public lands that is then leased out to the government.
If we had just been paying closer attention, we might have seen what would happen next to everyone.
You also have a very different approach to the Second Amendment . . .
The Second Amendment is – many African-Americans have noted correctly that it applied to militias to police the plantations informally. Often these were very poor white people who were hired to be the militias and very brutal. But long before that, initially, I think the ongoing – at least in that point of time – the major crisis of the US was wanting to get into the Ohio Valley and to expand. The militias that controlled native people and burned their towns – and burned their food – killed people, carried this out without the government criticizing it or punishing it, but not necessarily condoning it.
You have dedicated a lifetime to writing history that refuses to do anything other than apply a race, gender and class lens to everything that you do. You have also been actively involved in movements that go back to the ’60s, through the American Indian Movement (AIM) right to the present. Any lesson to people out there or message to those who may think this is old political correctness, we’ve done this, now we can all be one people again? We don’t need this-one’s history and that-one’s history; we’re ready now for a new era?
Native people may be in a stronger position politically almost than any other group in the United States right now. People are looking to Native Americans: Well, what is it that’s going on? Idle No More really alerted people.
They talked on this program [about] how native treaty rights might be the way we stop corporate exploitation of the dirty tar sands or other dirty oil resources.
Exactly. With democracy within native nations that can control the tribal governments that are so attached to the federal government – that’s been a long struggle to break that colonialist tie where that’s who they answer to rather than the people – then it’s a very, very strong basis for fighting the corporations.
But still important that we tell these peoples’ histories.
It’s important that we tell all people’s history, but especially native people because it is the history of this country and it is what is lost, and we should really be mourning it – what was lost. When people read that first chapter “Follow the Corn,” I think there will be this great sense of sadness. There’s a great sadness, I think, in people about native people and the genocide. But there are two things: It’s worse than you imagine, what you thought was lost. [And] don’t give up on native people. They survived; they are survivors – and have survivor skills. They survived the worst genocide in human history – the greatest numbers over the greatest times. They know a lot that is going to be very important as we face some difficult times ahead.
Roxanne, thank you for bringing us so many more stories that I hope people will come to remember and appreciate. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States is just out; we’ll put a link at our website. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, thanks for coming in.
Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on “The Laura Flanders Show,” a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including The New York Times best-seller, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species. She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media.MORE BY THIS AUTHOR…
Indigenous people have lived in a sustainable way for centuries and passed their knowledge from generation to generation, feeding their people without damaging the natural environment.by Gloria Schiavi, Inter Press Service September 13, 2014