“White Supremacy” has captured the nation’s attention. On August 3, a white supremacist mass shooter left 22 dead in El Paso. On Wednesday August 7, presidential candidates Joe Biden and Corey Booker made speeches referencing White Supremacy. That same day, Fox host Tucker Carlson announced he is ‘going on vacation,’ after claiming that White Supremacy is not an issue. Across the mediascape, White Supremacy and its role in American society is being interrogated – what is it and what are we supposed to do about it?
Despite the apparent diversity of responses to these shootings that recur with “chilling regularity” to quote Cory Booker, responses across the political spectrum from Democrat to Republican share fundamental assumptions rooted in White Supremacy. Is it possible that the responses by Cory Booker and Joe Biden meant as critiques of white supremacist violence are invested in a logic that retrenches it? Is their very definition of ‘White Supremacy” itself an obfuscation which aligns them with Tucker Carlson?
In fetishistic disavowal, one comes to assert the part for the whole. Perhaps the whole is too traumatic to internalize, or too complicated to make sense of. A psychologically digestible portion of a phenomenon is apprehended, and comes to stand in for the thing in its entirety. That which is not apprehended is disavowed – driven outside of discourse and of comprehension.
This article proceeds from the definition of White Supremacy as the organizing logic and fundamental structuring principle of the U.S. social formation. Examples run from the annihilation of the indigenous population and the chattelization of millions of Africans, through wars of territorial expansion, racial lynching, anti-miscegenation law, and Jim Crow. Despite a hegemonic ‘color-blind’ ideology that sees U.S. society as transcending its history of racial despotism, there has been no break and no ‘outside-of’ White Supremacy.
Racism, according to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, is “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” The United States is a hierarchically organized racial state with whiteness as its privileged category and black and brown populations historically and contemporaneously subjected to “premature death.”
Across any register of social well-being – access to housing, health care, wealth, educational access and employment, whites do better than people of color. Black and brown populations are also subject to a monstrous racialized social control apparatus in the prison regime, which employs extrajudicial street execution, community destruction, and renders black and brown bodies to pieces through tortuous technologies of isolation, physical brutality and disappearance.
White supremacy is the everyday. It is our common sense. When we ‘see race,’ that’s White Supremacy at work. It is to quote Omi and Winant our ‘master category’ that renders legible the US social formation, and is constitutive of our very identities as subjects.
Progressive Corey Booker, centrist Joe Biden and conservative Tucker Carlson, in their elaborations of White Supremacy, have deployed a series of fetishistic disavowals – a linking of the signifier “White Supremacy” with a particular circumscribed meaning. Through fetishistic disavowal these entirely despicable actions, these white nationalist shootings, and the white nationalist spaces from which they emerge come to stand in for White Supremacy in its entirety. The part stands in for the whole and the whole recedes from comprehensibility. White Supremacy is much bigger than these shootings, of which they are a symptom. Not just white nationalist extremists perpetuate it. “Good” liberals do too. The ‘normalcy’ that democrats wish to return to is always-already saturated in White Supremacy.
“If you were to assemble a list, a hierarchy of concerns of problems this country faces, where would white supremacy be on the list? …It’s actually not a real problem in America. The combined membership of every white supremacist organization in this country would be able to fit inside a college football stadium.”
Tucker Carlson defined White Supremacy as ‘white supremacist organizations” and their members. White supremacy is a fringe ideology, numerically negligible – surely not the ‘problem’ democrats make it out to be.
The Real of White Supremacy as organizing principle is disavowed. Access to education, health care, or subjection to racialized social control through the carceral – questions of housing discrimination, the wealth gap, and access to employment become unthinkable. Carlson’s definition fetishizes white nationalist organizations as the whole.
As awful as they are, they are a small and symptomatic part. If they were all rounded up in Carlson’s football stadium and given the Pinochet treatment, the fundamental structuration of US society as White Supremacist would remain.
Joe Biden gave the best performance of his presidential run in his speech in Iowa on August 7. His speech has been praised as a “blistering” rebuke of the President, who is “fanning the flames of white supremacy.”
“…the president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation. … an energetic embrace of this president by the darkest hearts and most hate-filled minds in this country say it all. When the white nationalist Richard Spencer celebrated Trump’s election by declaring, “hail Trump” at an alt-right conference where the Nazi salute was being used. In Charlottesville, David Duke, the former leader of the KKK said, “This is why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take back the country.”
Joe Biden articulates White Supremacy as the nexus between Donald Trump and the ‘darkest hearts and hate-filled minds’ of Richard Spencer, David Duke, the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and the Alt-Right. Joe Biden is correct that these are some awful people. But nevertheless, they are not the entirety of White Supremacy. In fact, hate is not White Supremacy’s animating principle. White supremacy can function with general positive regard.
White Supremacy does not depend on hate because it is not in individual attitudes, but the social structure. Hate does not deny housing loans, nor does it deny people of color access to health insurance. Judges are not handing out disproportionate sentences to black and brown youth because they are hateful. They do it because it’s written in law. Laws like the 1994 crime bill.
Hence, we arrive at the utterly surreal and Orwellian absurdity that Joe Biden, a chief architect of the most powerful White Supremacist social control apparatus in the modern period, mass incarceration, grandstands as a champion in the struggle against White Supremacy. Through collapsing its definition to equate with the Alt-right and white nationalists, a discursive space is opened in which a chief architect of institutional White Supremacy postures as its nemesis.
Reading Carlson’s and Biden’s statements together, something else becomes apparent. Though they disagree on whether White Supremacy is a problem, they fundamentally share its definition. Although these shootings are reprehensible and we should do all we can to contain and to eliminate them, doing so will not eradicate White Supremacy.
Through fetishistically disavowing the scale of White Supremacy, both Tucker Carlson and Joe Biden adopt ideological positions firmly ensconced within White Supremacy as organizing principle. That’s how master categories work.
Cory Booker’s speech at Emanuel AME church where 9 black people were killed by a white mass shooter in 2015 was a rhetorically brilliant performance within a powerful setting.
Unlike Biden and Carlson he recognized White Supremacy as a structuring principle of the United States, an act of ‘profound contradiction.’ “White Supremacy” and “racist violence has always been a part of this American story.”
He spoke of mass incarceration as disproportionately affecting black and brown people, unjust immigration policies, and racialized access to health care. Unlike Carlson and Biden, he spoke of White Supremacy as embedded in institutions.
He spoke of revolutionary love and struggle and cited the great social movements of American history – abolitionists, labor, the women’s movement, and the civil rights campaign and wrapped his speech with a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘dream’ speech.
So what’s the problem?
Much has been made of Joe Biden’s ‘slip’ of the tongue the day after his Iowa speech in which he said ‘poor kids are just as smart as white kids.’ According to Freud and Lacan, slips of the tongue betray the ‘truth of the subject’ – the underlying stream of thought below consciousness that is being repressed during enunciation.
Another slip of the tongue that is just as “interesting” was made by Cory Booker during his Emmanuel AME speech.
“We must label (slip) to do the… we must labor (correction) to do the difficult, we must be freedom fighters, we must stand together, and work together and struggle together for a new American freedom in our generation. Freedom from fear, freedom from violence, freedom from hatred… freedom to dream America new again.”
What could this slip “mean?” What repressed truth is spoken here? That Booker, through reciting the long history of struggle in this country wants to link himself with these movements. He wants the label.
He wants to be thought of as an extension of their symbolic legacy. He wants to be labeled a “ freedom warrior.” He wants to distance himself from other democratic contenders by capturing the legacy of movements. But the utterance of “label” in the place of “labor” signifies another truth – on some level he unconsciously recognizes the disparity between what he is proposing be done and the legacy he cites.
“The real question is, do racism or white supremacy exist? If the answer is yes then the real question is who is or isn’t doing something about it.”
What does Cory Booker want to do to engage the long and sordid history of White Supremacy as organizing principle?
“We must require the Department of justice, homeland security and the F.B.I. to conduct assessments of the domestic terrorist threats that are posed by white supremacists, to take this more seriously, to act on the threat and to publicly and transparently report annually to congress and the public on these threats…”
Booker’s Fetishistic disavowal works through the policies that he proposes, by targeting these groups as the sole actionable object towards remediating White Supremacy. Booker knows the legacy of movements towards justice and cynically articulates this legacy and their struggles against systemic White Supremacy with a policy platform that, by targeting white nationalism exclusively as the site of White Supremacy, re-inscribes its definition in exactly parallel ways to Tucker Carlson and Joe Biden.
Since when did ‘freedom fighting’ and ‘struggling together’ mean fighting to have the FBI make annual reports to congress?
His ‘do something,’ his ideological extension of the legacy of social movements harkening back to MLK is to strengthen and rely on the FBI, the same FBI that labels “Black Identity extremists” a top terror threat. Anyone familiar with the long legacy of the FBI’s repression of movements towards justice should shudder at the thought.
For as with Biden, this is great policy for repressing this paroxysmal violence. But it doesn’t do anything to challenge White Supremacy proper.
Restricting access to weapons that belong on battlefields, and labeling white nationalist violence as terroristic and loosing the surveillance state will suppress the symptomology of White Supremacy. But holding this symptom suppression up as a cure is fetishistic disavowal, if not outright cynicism. For with all his recitation of the legacy of freedom fighting, how is his ‘do something’ any different than what any other democrat would do?
White Supremacy is in the news. And we have seen three different mainstream political responses from the so-called ‘progressive’ Booker, centrist Joe Biden, to the conservative Carlson. These positions are, respectively, the cynical, the absurd, and the violently ignorant. And they are all so deep in the waters of White Supremacy that they don’t know what wet is.