*Co-Authored by Christopher Petrella and Ameer Hasan Loggins
In December 2016, A&E announced the January 10 premiere of Generation KKK, an eight-part documentary series aimed at examining the lives of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members and their families. Mere hours after the network’s announcement, various celebrities took to Twitter to lambast the network for “normalizing the KKK” and for “giving a platform to hate groups.” While such critiques are understandable in our current political climate, they expose a misguided mainstream assumption about the nature and foundation of white supremacy—namely, that the ideology of white domination resides near the outskirts of the American political landscape. Such an assumption is both false and dangerous.
Despite the fact that the series will never air—the network recently cancelled the show after discovering producers were paying Klan members for on-camera interviews—the basic thrust of popular critique surrounding the show’s probable content is valuable for what it reveals about how the political mainstream conceptualizes white supremacy and strategies for its elimination.
Rather than existing at the recalcitrant edge of U.S. politics, white supremacy is central to the U.S. nation-state–a political entity whose very kernel rests on exclusionary practices, policies, and laws that racialize national belonging. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” underscores this point. King writes that he has
almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.
In Whiteness of a Different Color, historian Matthew Frye Jacobson echoes King’s analysis, rejecting the assumption that white supremacy is peripheral to the American political ethos. Rather, he argues that white supremacy is the very “guarantor” of U.S. democracy through the frameworks of slavery, race-based immigration statutes, “anti-miscegenation” laws, racialized criminalization, and de facto and de jure segregation and disenfranchisement.
To be sure, mainstream U.S. politics—perhaps best represented by the Office of the President—is a racial project marked by nearly uninterrupted intergenerational appeals to white dominance. Irrespective of political party and historical epoch, mainstream U.S. politics itself has normalized—and continues to normalize—white supremacy more powerfully than A&E’s Generation KKK ever could. From indigenous genocide to the enslavement of black people to scientific racism and our current era of colorblind racism, U.S. politics—and the Office of the President—has ratified white supremacy with brutal uniformity.
Indeed, thirteen men who would become U.S. Presidents enslaved black men, women, and children at some point in their lives. Beyond the “peculiar institution,” however, many presidents have themselves “normalized white supremacy” and served as “platforms for hate” by virtue of their words and deeds.
In 1779, George Washington popularized white nationalism when he ordered General John Sullivan to “destruct” and “devastate” as many Native American settlements as possible. “It will be essential to ruin their crops in the group and prevent their planting more,” he proudly declared. Half a century later Andrew Jackson stated in his fifth annual message of 1833 that Indigenous Peoples “have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.” Just a few years earlier James Monroe, in a letter to Andrew Jackson, noted that “hunter state” of Native Americans, “tho maintain’d by warlike spirits, presents but a feeble resistance to the more dense, compact, and powerful population of civilized man.”
In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson postulated that “the blacks…are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Jefferson’s biological white supremacy was echoed in the political arena by Abraham Lincoln in 1858 at his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas in Charleston, Illinois. “I am not, nor even have been,” Lincoln stated, “in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
In 1865, James Garfield repeated Lincoln’s theme of “white superiority,” arguing in a letter to an anonymous friend that “I have a strong feeling of repugnance when I think of the Negro being made our political equal. And I would be glad if they could be colonized, sent to heaven, or got rid of in any decent way.” A year after the passage of the 13th Amendment President Andrew Johnson underscored Garfield’s sentiments: “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President; it shall be a government for white men.” Less than a decade later—and in the middle of Reconstruction—President Ulysses S. Grant noted in his second inaugural address that he would not “ask that anything be done to advance the social status of the colored man.”
In 1879, Rutherford B. Hayes gleefully referred to “the Negroes and Indians” as “weaker races” and in 1895 Theodore Roosevelt argued in North American Review that “a perfectly stupid race can never rise to a very high plane; the negro, for instance, has been kept down as much by lack of intellectual development as by anything else.” Whereas presidents Cleveland, Hoover, and Coolidge focused their racial animus on the Chinese at the turn of the century, saying they were “backward,” “dishonest,” and “unamerican,” respectively, Woodrow Wilson described the KKK as “great” and “veritable.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, William Howard Taft noted that “social equality between the races shall be enforced by law” has “no foundation in fact.” In conjunction, presidents Warren Harding and Richard Nixon rejected “miscegenation.” Meanwhile Harding opined in 1921 that “racial amalgamation there cannot be,” Nixon advocated for abortion “when you have a black and a white…or a rape.”
Outspoken “liberal” President Lyndon B. Johnson repeatedly referred to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as the “ni***r bill” and Ronald Reagan noted in a 1980 conversation with Laurence Barrett that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was “humiliating to the South.”
Jimmy Carter railed against “black intrusion” into white neighborhoods and Bill Clinton played golf at a “whites only” country club in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most recently, Donald Trump—who will take the Oath of Office of the President on January 20, 2017—endorsed white supremacy when he categorically dismissed Mexicans as criminals and rapists.
It is against this backdrop that we insist on positioning white supremacy as central—not peripheral—to the American sociopolitical landscape. Arguing that mainstream U.S. politics more powerfully and enduringly normalizes white supremacy than the KKK forces an important analytical shift: it demands that we recognize that white supremacy needs no “normalizing.” To the contrary, it already constitutes the heart and core of U.S. politics and society.
Christopher Petrella is a Lecturer in American Cultural Studies at Bates College. His work explores the intersections of race, state, and criminalization. He completed a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Follow him on Twitter @CFPetrella.