I never thought I’d hear a U.S. president explicitly call out white supremacy in an inauguration address. For President Joe Biden to follow it up a week later with a slate of executive orders aimed at pursuing a racial equity agenda offers an encouraging start to the much more difficult project of healing the divisions in our country.
But to succeed, we have to be clear about what white supremacy is and what it is not. Crucially, calling out white supremacy is not a dig against white people. There will be those who insist that to use the term is to attack all white people. They are wrong.
White supremacy is an ideology, a way of viewing the world. And while this ideology may be embraced by many people who are white, there is strong evidence to suggest that most do not. To challenge white supremacy is the right thing to do. All ideas that say one race or ethnic group is superior to another must be challenged.
Conflating white supremacy with white people only sows resentment and invites backlash. And this is what the right wing counts on.
Confronting white supremacy means taking aim at both the structure and ideology of white superiority rooted in our history and cemented by our laws that have taken various expressions over the decades and centuries.
Last summer saw demonstrations across the country asserting that Black lives matter after the death of George Floyd. At its core, this movement was a challenge to the culture and structure that assert white people are superior and Black lives do not matter. The attack against Floyd was an attack on the idea that Black people are of equal value.
These are issues that Biden himself was forced to confront during the presidential campaign. Then-Sen. Kamala Harris challenged him during debates, questioning his commitment to civil rights and equality based on his past position on segregation. Without reliving that debate or what problematic positions Biden took as a U.S. senator, it is clear today that he has issued a challenge for the country to overcome its divisions.
While Biden’s executive orders for racial equity shouldn’t be taken to necessarily reflect his personal convictions (although they might), they should be celebrated as a validation of the power we hold when we come together by the millions and march as we did over the summer to demand an end to racist practices in policing, prisons and society.
In a way, this historic moment and the potential to make advances against white supremacy and toward racial equality feel reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Johnson, not known as a stalwart for racial equality to say the least, responded in that crucial period of the 1960s to the pressure from below to pass the most important civil rights legislation in the country’s history.
We know from the five decades after Johnson that the civil rights legislation didn’t go far enough in improving life for Black people, nor did it meaningfully integrate us into society. This was in part because of the successful counterattack waged by right-wing elites who played on racial fears to keep us divided.
What we often forget, though, is that white people were also victims of this divide-and-rule strategy, as it kept their wages depressed, prevented them from accessing health care and left them in a constant state of racial anxiety and insecurity.
To give one example, several years ago I spoke to a group of several hundred white people in rural Alabama about changing the laws so the Affordable Care Act could be extended to their state. They were mostly against it, thinking it was a communist plan to help Black and Latinx people, but not them. I started asking them to stand up if they had been denied coverage because they lost a job, had a child with a preexisting condition or had their insurance company reject the cost of a prescription. Before long, everyone in the room was standing.
No matter how poor their conditions were, white people have been led to believe that at least they were better off than Black people. What we’ve failed to ask is, “Why can’t we all be better off, Black and white?”
W.E.B. Du Bois suggested more than 80 years ago that the United States chose white supremacy over democracy. Today we have an opportunity to correct that. But to choose democracy, we must reject white supremacy as an ideology and as a practice.
We would be wise to learn from the mistakes of the past and not let the right wing succeed in driving us apart in our bid for democracy through unity. All forms of supremacy, including white supremacy, must be rejected by all who would claim the mantle of equality and freedom. We can be the patriots for that elusive dream of a real democracy.
In 1962, the prolific thinker James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
We’re now facing white supremacy, and there’s no turning back. But the only way we win is by facing it together.
john a. powell is a professor of law and ethnic studies at UC Berkeley and the director of the Othering and Belonging Institute.