As a term of art in U.S. antiracist politics, white supremacy refers both to an ideology and to a historic political system.
As an ideology, white supremacy is the belief that white people are, by dint of race, culturally and/or biologically superior to all other people and should, therefore be the dominant group in a multiracial society. White supremacy as ideology was invented to justify the establishment of explicitly racist codes and institutions that protect white dominance and rationalize race-slavery, Native American dispossession, the subjugation of women, and immigration limitation and control in the context of a liberal democratic state.
In the U.S., white supremacy was historically intertwined with a narrow interpretation of Christian religious doctrine to also rationalize male supremacy. For instance, the justification for the dispossession of Native Americans was a combination of both biological and cultural racism, and Christian supremacy. Through these overlapping lenses, Native Americans were cast as savages and heathens. This idea of Native peoples as anti-Christian savages was further reinforced by male supremacist views of white womanhood which used “protection” of women and girls as a rationale for domination and political exclusion. To white settlers, Native societies that “allowed” women to work independently and outside of the home where they were supposedly subject to the dangers of the wilderness were not civilized at all, opening the door to regimes of dispossession and extermination.
As a legal/political system, white supremacy historically excluded non-whites from full citizenship. Exclusion extended to voting rights, land ownership, labor protections, full participation in public institutions and services, political representation, and the protection of the courts. White supremacist legal codes also dictated settlement patterns, often enforced racial segregation, and banned people of color and especially Blacks from educational opportunities and participation in certain professions and industries.
The last vestiges of legally codified white supremacy fell in the 1960s as a result of the establishment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Right Act, as well as subsequent reforms facilitated by the enactment of these laws. The contemporary legacy of legal white supremacy today is structural racism.
Structural racism refers to the contemporary system of racially inequitable social and political relations resulting from historic practices of legally sanctioned racial exploitation and exclusion. Structural racism, in other words, is the way historic white supremacy shows up today in wealth disparities, racially determined settlement patterns, concentrations of poverty, unequal educational opportunity, unequal policing, and deeply engrained white supremacist cultural norms that, among other tropes, present Black people as predatory leaches, and Asians as inscrutable forever foreigners.
Importantly, because structural racism is a historic construct, it can be reproduced without explicit racist intent. It keeps on when we just go along, making its seeming permanence a further rational for its perpetuation. But while just going along with it, even unconsciously may be enough to perpetuate it, none of us were the original architects of structural racism, making blame a dry well when it comes to achieving justice. However, while none of us were the architects of structural racism, we are all its unequal inheritors. We can disdain our racist past, but what we do in our lifetimes will determine whether structural racism will be inherited by future generations
We have typically and correctly referred to organized racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils that predate the civil rights reforms of the 1960s as white supremacist groups. These groups were defenders of a white supremacist legal order. They were, for this reason, system supportive or conservative rather than radical organizations.
For instance, the KKK was founded to defend the old Confederacy, in particular by building opposition to Reconstruction and committing acts of terror intended to push formerly enslaved Black workers out of developing free labor markets and back onto plantations. Over generations, they continued to be defenders of racial exclusion and segregation under the law against attempts on the part of people of color, and especially Black people, to achieve full inclusion. In this sense, they have functioned as underground law enforcers whose extreme acts of racial terror were intended to cause a chilling effect among those who aspired to challenge the white supremacist order.
After the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, the system supportive political agendas of vigilante white supremacist groups like the KKK were no longer viable. As a result, the old white supremacist factions of the right underwent a process of strategic realignment and investment in new leadership and organizations. The end result of this process was a turn from white supremacy, as the primary political goal of the movement, to white nationalism.
White nationalism is a radical ideology with revolutionary implications as it proposes not to just subjugate people of color within a white supremacist state, but to exclude people of color altogether, with some factions aiming to achieve this end through taking over government and mounting genocidal campaigns of racial cleansing. Unlike historic white supremacist political factions like the KKK, white nationalists are deeply opposed to federal authority and often share the conspiratorial belief that the federal government has been corrupted by the influence of an international Jewish cabal that is manipulating the public to support a brand of multicultural liberalism they believe will undermine or even erase the white race. To them, white people in the U.S. are makers, while people of color are merely takers, a belief that justifies disinvestment from social safety net programs and immigration bans.
White supremacy is still relevant to the white nationalists as an ideological system. In other words, their belief in white supremacy is what justifies their white nationalist political agenda. And white supremacy is not just an ideology of hate. It also functions as a powerful form of nostalgia for a glorified past in which white supremacist legal systems secured white dominance and, it is wrongly supposed, all white people enjoyed greater safety and freedom. In this way, white supremacist ideology serves as a call to battle to make America great again, through purging society of “impure” elements and making way for a national rebirth rooted in a mythic past in which the European roots of American society were revered without criticism and white men dominated all aspects of American life, including hearth, home, and women’s bodies.