Systemic Racism and the White Racial Frame

We talk a lot here about the ideas of systemic racism and the white racial frame. Let me develop these ideas a bit, mainly from several recent books. See here and here and here and here . The North American system of racial oppression grew out of extensive European exploitation of indigenous peoples and African Americans. It has long encompassed these dimensions: (1) a white racial framing of society with its racist ideology, stereotypes, and emotions; (2) whites’ discriminatory actions and an enduring racial hierarchy; and (3) pervasively racist institutions maintained by discriminatory whites over centuries. White-generated oppression is far more than individual bigotry, for it has from the beginning been a material, social, and ideological reality. For four centuries North American racism has been systemic–that is, it has been manifested in all major societal institutions.

The white racial frame is a generic meaning system that rationalizes the system of material oppression. The white racial frame has long been propagated and held by most white Americans–and even, in part, accepted by many people of color. For most whites, the racial frame is deeply held, with many stored “bits,” including stereotyped knowledge, racial images and understandings, racial emotions, and racial interpretations. Not all whites use the dominant frame to the same extent, and in everyday practice there are multiple variations. By constantly using selected bits of the dominant racial frame to interpret society, by integrating new items into it, and by applying its stereotypes, images, and interpretations in many discriminatory actions, whites imbed their racialized frame deeply in their minds.

Take this key example from the early development of the dominant white racial frame. Among the self-named “whites,” who also named “black” and “Indian” Americans, were US founders Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. They had conceptions of black Americans as very inferior to white Americans, who were seen as greatly superior in civilization. In Jefferson’s only major book, Notes on the State of Virginia, the white framing of African Americans is fiercely racist: enslaved black Americans smell funny, are natural slaves, are less intelligent, are uglier in skin color, are lazy, are oversexed, not as sophisticated in serious music, cannot learn advanced knowledge, and can never be well-integrated into white America. Significantly, most of these racist elements are still operative in much current white thinking. (See also here.)

This frame was, and still is, designed by whites to rationalize an extensive system of racial oppression, with its central racial hierarchy, one with whites on top. The old racial hierarchy is rooted in coercive exploitation and resource inequality and is rationalized by the deeply held white racial frame. First centered on African Americans, and to some extent Native Americans, the white racial framing placed later groups of color–such as Chinese Americans after the 1850s and Mexican Americans after the 1840s–well down the already dominant racial hierarchy. Whites were central from the beginning to creating the North American system of racial oppression and its dominant racist frame, including all key words (“white,” “black,” and almost all racist epithets) and interpretations in that frame. Today, as in the past, the white racial frame is not just in the United States, but is fundamentally constitutive of it.

Another key idea I suggest we need to analyze US racism is that of resistance and counter-framing. Counter-frames are grounded in counter-system thinking and have been important for groups of color to survive and resist oppression over many generations. Certain leaders and thinkers in racially oppressed groups, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, have developed articulated counter-frames, but so do ordinary people, the “organic intellectuals” in these oppressed groups. In these resistance/anti-racism counter-frames whites are defined as problematical, and ideas and strategies on how to deal with whites and white institutions are developed. Among other things, a developed counter-frame includes understandings of how discrimination and racial hostility work, examples of dealing with discriminatory whites from family and friends, and teachings about safety and various passive and active strategies of resistance to a variety of white discriminators.


  1. Joe Author

    thanks, I welcome comments. I am indeed doing a book now on all this, The White Racial Frame, for Routledge.

    Notice too how the hoary frame’s ideas are playing out in the increasing attacks on Senator Obama, such as that of Rep. Steve King, who complains of his poor “optics.” We have the image again of the “dangerous black man” that Jefferson would easily have recognized.

  2. GDAWG

    Yup. What find interesting is the intersecting interest of the political parties in their racial offensiveness, ala billary, and, most recently gerry demented, which also validates your hypothesis for me.


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