If it explains everything, it explains nothing
‘Today, progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations” in 2014. It is not obvious that this claim was true in 2014. It is even less obvious that this claim is true in 2018, or that it was true in October of 2017, when it was republished as part of Coates’s collection We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.
Data point: Attorney General Jeff Sessions caused a minor progressive freak-out in early February when he described the office of sheriff as “a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.” Time correspondent Charlotte Alter offered a typical progressive response, writing that Sessions’s remark is a reminder of the fact that “our justice system is rooted in white supremacy.”
It may — may, arguendo — be the case that our criminal-justice system is indeed rooted in white supremacy, at least as Coates uses the term, which is distinct from its historical use as a description of the views of individuals and institutions that believe that white people (or at least some white people — it gets complicated) are categorically and inherently superior to nonwhites and that this superiority implies a natural lordship of whites over the rest of the world, whether that takes the form of enslavement and repression or a more benevolent (in theory, anyway) attitude of patronage toward the inferior races, a stewardship modeled on Adam’s dominion over the animals as described in the Bible.
For Coates, “white supremacy” is a kind of sediment, an accumulation of white crimes and black victimization, of whites plundering and blacks being plundered, a series of offenses deeply embedded in the American experience and American institutions “so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.” Slavery and Jim Crow and lynching are part of the story, in this view, but so is every Starbucks in Brooklyn: “‘Gentrification’ is but a more pleasing name for white supremacy,” he writes, arguing that it “is the interest on enslavement, the interest on Jim Crow, the interest on redlining, compounding across the years, and these new urbanites living off of that interest are, all of them, exulting in a crime.” Unlike the self-righteous Pharisee who in his prayers thanked God “that I am not like other people,” Coates counts himself among the gentrifiers and the other beneficiaries of American racial crimes.
If that is what Charlotte Alter and others mean by “Our justice system is rooted in white supremacy” — that it is part of a long historical arc that has chattel slavery at one end and Williamsburg hipsters driving up rents in Brooklyn at the other — then there is almost nothing to say about it. Yes, America’s racial history has left a mark on practically every aspect of American society, from urban-development patterns to Mormon ecclesiology. That doesn’t mean that “white supremacy” as understood by Coates is anodyne — far from it — only that it is as omnipresent and inescapable as sickness and death, those other default settings to which, at the end of our days, we must invariably return.
When Coates first published “The Case for Reparations,” I criticized it on the grounds that in the classical-liberal tradition — the Anglo-American tradition, as Sessions would rightly observe — we want our criminals and victims identified, and for good reason: That which is given in reparation is given to make someone whole at the expense of someone who is enjoying ill-gotten benefits. Our system of justice follows the principle described by Robert Nozick: Something is justly held if it was justly acquired. Just acquisition implies that the property was acquired from a just holder: no good arguing that you paid fair market price for stolen goods. Only the narrowest ideologue would deny that African Americans were unjustly deprived of property and liberty for centuries or that this deprivation contributed to fortunes that were built from the cotton-growing South to the industrial North.
Conservatives such as I argue that in practically all cases, these unjust transfers happened long ago, involving people long dead and property long forgotten, that no living American has been a slave or owned one (setting aside the occasional horrifying episodes of slavery in our time; we are talking here about the antebellum African slave trade), that hereditary wealth related to slavery is so diminished and dispersed that it would provide no meaningful basis for reparation, that no defensible legal process for calculating reparations is available, etc. For Coates, those facts — those crimes without redress — merely deepen the sediment of white supremacy and ensure that such considerations as due process and property rights remain mired in that sediment.
I wonder whether Coates et al. are not making a fundamental error in selecting “white supremacy” as their description of this phenomenon. The phrase “white supremacy” expresses an idea about white people, and the boundary line it draws in the intellectual and moral universe is between white people and everybody else. It is an idea about the relationship between whites and nonwhites. But clearly that isn’t what Coates means by it — not if “white supremacy” is part of a criminal conspiracy to which he, a black intellectual, is party.
There are two broad ways to understand the racial dynamic of the United States: One, as expressed by the words “white supremacy,” is that the racial fault lines of American society separate whites from everybody else. The second, which seems to me closer to what Coates is actually talking about, is that the racial fault lines of American society separate blacks — specifically, the black descendants of slaves and those who were systematically and formally oppressed for many years after Emancipation — from everybody else. That fits more closely with the actual facts of American life, in which the average white person is . . . average, while certain socioeconomic heights are occupied by nonwhite minorities: The most educated group of U.S. citizens, as measured by undergraduate and advanced degrees, is Nigerian Americans, while the highest-earning Americans are of Indian origin. Native-born black Americans, on the other hand, are statistical outliers on many unhappy fronts, from poverty to homicide.
‘White supremacy” serves a broader rhetorical purpose for the Left, which is forever in search of a master theory attached to a master villain. For a century or so, the master theory was Marxism and the master villain was capitalism. For the countercultural radicals of 1968, the master villain was the Establishment, bourgeois society, the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; for the feminists, it was patriarchy (recently supplanted by misogyny); for 1980s postmodernists of a Foucauldian bent, it was “power,” nebulously defined. (The contemporary Right has its own answers to that: globalists, elitists, etc.)
Those master villains need to have two attributes: One, they must be rooted in sin, either the sin of greed (capitalism) or the sin of hatred, which is why “misogyny” gained currency over “patriarchy” and why some on the left have settled on “white supremacy” as an explanation for what ails black America rather than such traditional factors as poverty, which according to the rhetoric of the moment must be understood as yet another facet of white supremacy. Two, the villains must be impersonal. If culpable racism is being perpetrated by culpable racists who, e.g., victimize African Americans by subjecting them to police abuses, then people of good will start to ask the obvious questions: Which police? Where? Doing what, exactly? That creates problems for the professional activist class — which is what “white supremacy” is all about as a rhetorical matter. E.g.: Between 2007 and 2013, Philadelphia police shot 394 suspects, leading to claims of excessive force and, inevitably, excessive force used in a racially discriminatory manner. But the mayor of Philadelphia was black, and the police commissioner was black, and the police department was 33 percent black (the city is 42 percent black), and many of the shootings that activists questioned involved black officers. “White supremacy” gives you a rhetorical out: “Black cops are subject to the same training, culture and systemic pressures as their white counterparts,” Lauren Fleer of Socialist Worker wrote about the Philadelphia situation. What comes next, reliably, is an extended exercise in begging the question:
And beyond the front line of beat cops and detectives, a multiracial coterie of public officials — including Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, Mayor Michael Nutter and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, and on up to the U.S. Attorney General and president of the U.S. — oversees a criminal “justice” system where brutality and racism run rampant.
Asked about the fact that 80 percent of people shot by cops are black, Commissioner Ramsey told the press conference: “Well, about 85 percent of our homicide victims are African American. About 85 percent of people who do the homicide are African American. So that’s right in the ballpark. Listen, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m black myself, so I’m not real proud of the fact that we have a disproportionate amount of crime occurring in African American communities.”
Translation: Blacks are shot at more because they commit most of the crimes — oh, and by the way, I’m black, so this statement can’t be racist. Ramsey essentially plays “the race card,” but in reverse.
The truth is that we don’t know who commits more crime because cops over-police black and Latino neighborhoods, while letting violations of the law slide in communities where whites are the majority.
How do we know that police crack down disproportionately on black neighborhoods while taking a hands-off approach in white areas? Because the rhetoric of “white supremacy” requires that it be so. African Americans are charged with more crimes because the justice system is racist, and we know that the justice system is racist because African Americans are charged with more crimes. Point out the circularity there and you are sure to be called a racist, an agent of white supremacy, etc.
Not everybody on the left welcomes the new prevalence of “white supremacy” as a blanket term for political tendencies as different as those associated with Adolf Hitler on the one hand and Donald Trump on the other. In response to criticism that Senator Bernie Sanders (really!) is an instrument of white supremacy, Kevin Drum, one of the sober voices at Mother Jones, writes:
This is a terrible fad. With the exception of actual neo-Nazis and a few others, there isn’t anyone in America who’s trying to promote the idea that whites are inherently superior to blacks or Latinos. Conversely, there are loads of Americans who display signs of overt racism — or unconscious bias or racial insensitivity or resentment over loss of status — in varying degrees.
This isn’t just pedantic. It matters. . . . Petty theft is not the same as robbing a bank. A lewd comment is not the same as rape. A possible lack of sensitivity is not a sign of latent support for apartheid. Bernie Sanders is not a white male supremacist.
You won’t be surprised by the Left’s response: Typical white-guy complaint!
Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, who has done useful if obviously self-interested work publicizing the increasingly illiberal tendencies of the American Left, has been abominated as a tool of white supremacy, just another well-paid white male luxuriating in his own privilege. In response to Chait’s complaints about left-wing illiberalism, Anne Theriault in the Huffington Post dismissed “Jonathan Chait’s angsty white man opus.” Alex Pareene of Gawker mocked him as a “sad white man.” Jessica Valenti, writing in the Guardian, sneered that Chait was “whining” about “imaginary affronts to white liberal men’s ability to speak freely, by which he means ‘without women or people of color getting mad at him,’” adding: “Chait’s real problem, it seems, is that he doesn’t understand why his privilege — or anyone else’s — should impact how people perceive what he says.” She blasted “his willful ignorance about why he (a white, hetero, cisgender man) might not be able to use all the words or claim authority on every single topic.”
It is difficult to sympathize very much with Chait, who is himself in the habit of making irresponsible accusations of racism, including at least one against me. But give him credit at least for acknowledging that it is potentially helpful to have different words for different things. Like Drum, he identifies Coates as Patient Zero in the epidemic of white-supremacy rhetoric:
Coates places Trump in a different category than previous presidents when it comes to his treatment of race. But his examples largely amount to behavior with a historical precedent. Like Nixon, Trump has made private expressions of bigotry against African-Americans and Jews. Like many Republican politicians, he has used immigration and crime as wedge issues to foment white hysteria. Coates persuasively argues that Trump has made race more central to his persona than other post-civil-rights politicians, but that is not the same as identifying him as a white supremacist.
If Jeff Sessions talks about the “Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement,” then that rings the alarm bells of “white supremacy” — not because of the content, but because Sessions is a white male Republican from Alabama employed by the Trump administration. That is nothing but ad hominem, as indeed is the mockery directed at Chait, which amounts to “Shut up, white man,” as though his being white and male were more important than his being banal and dishonest. In that sense, “white supremacy” is only another in the progressive parade of horribles, up there with Islamophobia and transmisogyny, the terrible sin straight men commit if they forgo dating “women” with penises and testicles. It is simply a rhetorical tool for transmuting disagreement into bigotry.
If “white supremacy” is to be something more than the phlogiston of racial politics — explaining everything, it explains nothing — then it has to mean something. It used to mean something: the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis and their imitators, race-science crackpottery, etc. All it seems to communicate at the moment is that Jeff Sessions is familiar with the fundamental nomenclature of political economy in the English-speaking world and that that angry lady from Time magazine isn’t.