Robert A. Levine
The belief in white supremacy provides justification for the nation’s racial conflicts and is the basis for white racial privilege. Currently, the major racial problems for America are the inequality between Blacks and whites and the continued obstruction of Black rights and attempts at advancement. But difficulties also exist between whites and Asians and whites and indigenous peoples, their origin eminating as well from the presumption of white supremacy and entitlement. Though America’s democracy supposedly is based on the concept expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, it appears that an influential part of the nation’s white population does not accept that thesis and acts in ways to subvert it. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In schools across the country, children must have heard these words at least dozens if not hundreds of times, and discussed the meaning with their teachers and fellow students. But there is still a large portion of white citizens who refuse to acknowledge the words of the Declaration and insist on believing in white superiority and privilege. The fact that Blacks were initially enslaved by whites has also contributed to the legacy of white supremacy and privilege, with an unwillingness among many white men and women to grant Blacks equal status and social standing.
After slavery was abolished in the United States and Blacks were freed, white attitudes towards them did not change significantly, particularly in the South with Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. With the passage of Federal Civil Rights statutes in the 1960s, there was movement towards equality under the law, but attitudes were mostly unaltered. But in the half century since, Blacks have been more assertive about their rights and many whites have shared their concerns. In the last decade, police brutality towards Blacks resulting in unnecessary deaths reinforced the presence of systemic racism in American society. Many whites reassessed their beliefs about Blacks, though racial privilege by whites remains, either overtly or covertly. The question now is whether we are truly on the road to change.
Isabel Wilkerson’s riveting book, Caste, expounds the concept that America has a caste system not unlike India’s, except that there are two major castes instead of many. Blacks are on the bottom and whites on top. People are born into their castes and certain behavior is expected by caste members no matter their level of education or accomplishments. Caste is a social construct like race and not is based on scientific evidence. In fact, scientific analysis finds no defining characteristics or genetic variations as markers of race or caste. The only difference between Blacks and whites is a matter of pigmented skin. However, the idea of race was a deliberate creation to justify the enslavement of Blacks and their subsequent treatment by the white population when they were freed.
Since the founding of the United States, racial privilege has not merely been manifest by whites in regard to Blacks. All racial groups have been perceived as inferior to northern European whites. The indigenous inhabitants of the United States were initially subjugated by European colonists and Hispanics were also denigrated in comparison to whites (though some were mainly Caucasian). Chinese laborers brought to work on the western railroads were looked down upon by whites with many believing in the threat of the “Yellow Peril.” Japanese farmers and gardeners were also seen as beneath whites and potentially dangerous, being interned during World War II. In addition, Eastern and Southern Europeans and Jews were all felt to be racially inferior compared to Northern Europeans and white Anglo-Saxons, and less intelligent. At various times, immigration laws were passed to prevent these groups from entering the United States with concern about miscegenation. But it was the Blacks who suffered the most from white privilege.
Until the concept of white supremacy is much less prevalent, racism and white privilege will remain divisive problems for America. Changing people’s mindset that has been imbued for generations will be a daunting task when these people refuse to accept that change is necessary if we are to have a true democracy.
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