Racism as Theory: A Historiography of White Supremacy Ideology

Drinking fountain on the county courthouse lawn, Halifax, North Carolina, 1938 (Library of Congress)

This historiography theorizes racism as applicable to an explanation of why decision-makers at major white organizations waited until the late 1960s to begin hiring black people to work as professionals. This essay focuses on the origin, development, perpetuation, and advancement of anti-blackness in the United States. It analyzes the literature concerning race and racism so that individuals could predict action rooted in white supremacy. The essay identifies factors that contribute to acts of racism including white people’s perception of an inferior other, competition between blacks and whites, white supremacy ideology, challenges to white privilege, and racial discrimination endorsed by federal, state, or local governments. The author argues that Caucasian decision makers employed Eurocentrism and white supremacy ideology to control resources and thwart the progress of people of color. Since black people were considered unworthy, business managers gave little consideration to hiring African Americans before the triumphs of the modern Civil Rights Movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

To understand the emergence of racism, one has to define Eurocentrism, white supremacy, race, and racism. Let us define Eurocentrism and white supremacy and later discuss race and various forms of racism. Eurocentrism is a worldview that European people, culture, and history are preeminent. The viewpoint maintains that people should prioritize the study and practice of Western ideals. On the other hand, white supremacy is the belief that Caucasians epitomize a superior division of humanity and are destined to dominate other racial or ethnic groups.

This part explores general principles of human differences. It is not intended to analyze the complexity of the evolution of civilizations; instead, it presents a simplified proposition. In the beginning of humanity, before much contact occurred among people living in different parts of the world, before the age of cross-national influences, differences existed among people who lived in regions throughout the world. The environment in which people lived caused them to evolve various biological characteristics. For example, among Africans, an abundance of melanin provided pigmentation that darkened skin color to protect the cells by absorbing harmful ultraviolet rays in sunlight. Cheikh Anta Diop discussed traits of Africans historically in his 1974 book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality. 

Now let us define the concept race. It is an “unscientific, societally constructed taxonomy that is based on an ideology that views some human groups as inherently superior to others on the basis of physical characteristics or geographic origin.”1 Based on the premise of the 1839 book, Crania Americana, then-scholars considered Samuel Morton as an authority on racial classification and theories concerning race. Advancing white supremacy, Morton proposed a theory of polygenesis, which posited that human beings are of different origins. Monogenism, a competing theory, suggested that humanity arose from a single origin. To support polygenesis and white supremacy, Morton measured the size of the skulls of individuals from various groups. He found that Caucasians had the largest skull, measuring an average of 88 cubic inches. An Indians’ skull averaged 87 cubic inches, and blacks had the smallest averaging 78 cubic inches. He proposed that the measurements proved that blacks were inferior.

Westerners considered native people as inferior because the indigenous revered nature, worshipped various entities, wore scant clothing, and ate unfamiliar foods. Europeans considered such differences indicative of barbarianism and mental and physical inferiority. Craftsmanship too played a role in the interpretation of high versus low culture. The European elite orchestrated the construction of large substantial buildings, sea-worthy ships, and military-purposed explosives. On the other hand, some non-western people lived in huts, traveled in canoes, and used bows and arrows as weapons.2 

Meanwhile, in the American colonies, the white elites were the principal beneficiaries of European ingenuity and the developing social order. Nevertheless, the colonists also enjoyed white privilege. In 1640, a magistrate applied an unjust legal remedy against an African accused of violating the same law as his white co-conspirators. African servant John Punch, who worked in the Virginia colony, conspired with a Dutchman and a Scottish man to escape from indentured servitude. They ran away but were caught, arrested, and tried. A judge sentenced the Europeans to a few additional years of servitude but condemned Punch to a time of enslavement. The sentences indicated to white people that they were more worthy than black people, even in criminality.

The U.S. Supreme Court entered the debate in the 1850s and further codified the unequal treatment of black people. The court heard arguments concerning the enslavement of black people. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote, “the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”3 That opinion in part set a precedent for the 1857 ruling in the Dred Scott decision. Pro-slavery attorneys introduced studies by anthropologists, such as Morton, who said whites and Negroes belonged to different species. Anthropologist Josiah Nott testified that slavery saved Negroes from reverting to their original barbaric state. The Dred Scott opinion re-enforced the point of view that people of African ancestry could not claim American citizenship and reduced them to enslavement. The ruling returned Scott to slavery and concluded that he lacked the right to file a lawsuit.

The Oxford English Dictionary in 1902 was the first to define racism. The dictionary said racism was “the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race.”  The dictionary termed racism as a synonym of racialism, which is the belief in the superiority of a particular race. Americans rarely used the term racism in the early 1900s. Pioneering civil rights activist and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett did not mention the concepts racism or racist in her memoir, Crusade for Justice, which she began writing in 1928, but died in 1931 before finishing the book. Instead she used words such as race hatred and race prejudice. The word racism did not appear in the Merriam-Webster dictionary prior to 1949. Webster defined racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Later Merriam-Webster revised the definition stating that it represented a systemic problem and not simply personal prejudice. It is “a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism is designed to execute its principles.” 

Systemic racism is a series of actions of interacting mechanisms that make opportunities available to racial groups on an unequal and unjustified basis. Institutional racism refers to leaders of organizations or operations that distributed opportunities and services inequitably based on race. Institutional racism is the mechanism by which systemic racism functions. Education, healthcare, financing, and justice are among the institutions providing societal resources that Caucasians believed reserved for white people. 

As such, individual, systemic, and institutional racism apply exclusively to white people and Caucasian institutions in the United States but not African Americans. Black people are not racists. Black people who hold anti-white sentiments may be bigots, prejudice, unethical, or intolerant, but they are not racist. Racist inculcation refers to prejudice or discrimination by a member or members of a powerful racial group against a member or members of another racial group. A powerless individual or group lacks the necessities that propel racial bigotry to the level of racism. Said another way, a racist is a member of a group who commands systemic or institutional political, social, economic, and police/military power. A member or members of an authoritative group could stop an opposite-race individual or group from reaching its objectives. To be clear, black people who hold anti-white views could at most hurt the feelings of a white person. A black person in the United States is not a meaningful member of the systems or institutions that can stop or impede a white person or Caucasians from reaching their objectives. 

Over the years, factors that preceded racist acts included Caucasians employing white supremacy ideology, viewing people of color as inferior, recognizing that blacks sought opportunities reserved for white people, and acting in concert with unjust racial policy. Specifically, when whites concluded that people of color represented competition for jobs, Caucasians acted as though white privilege was under assault. Caucasians embraced white supremacy ideology to boost their individual and collective self-esteem. Lastly, federal, state, and/or local governments initially endorsed racial segregation, disregarded its existence, or encouraged the exclusion of black people. Conversely, widespread activism and civil disobedience aimed at the elimination of racist laws in the late-1950s to the late-1960s subsided overt racism. The federal government codified racial integration by enacting laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The mass media reduced the dissemination of negative stereotypical images of black people. Finally, with such advancements, overt white supremacy gradually diminished, and white managers began hiring black professionals. 

  1. David R. Williams, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, and Rueben C. Warren, “The Concept of Race and Health Status in America,” Public Health Reports, vol. 109, no. 1, January-February 1994, p. 26.
  2. Blanche Kabengele, “An Intellectual History of Two Recent Theories of Racism,” diss., University of Cincinnati, 2011, p. 80-81.
  3. Claudia Roth Pierpoint, “The Measure of America; How a rebel anthropologist waged war on racism, The New Yorker, May 8, 2004, pp. 1-2.
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