Over the course of embracing of Feagin and Ducey’s concept of the elite-white-male (EWM) dominance system, I have often found myself asking the following question: Where does white nationalism fit into the broader EWM dominance system? In this blog post, I argue that white nationalism was/is the foundational cultural capital through which the EWM politics are mobilized. When the EWM dominance system is threatened, particularly through the perpetual quest for liberation and justice by Black Americans, non-elite whites tend to polarize to often violent forms of white nationalism.
As I argue, this racial polarization is not an accident – it is a core function of the US and the maintenance of the EWM colonial-imperial homeostasis. Here, I am largely referring to the non-elite form of nationalism, as it often differs from elite imperialism. Elite invocations of white nationalist and supremacist views are tied to their own imperial desires; non-elites’ embracing of white nationalism is a support structure.
Manufacturing the “Common Cause”
Even before the “formal” founding of the US, the EWM (often referred to as the “Founding Fathers,” or the original patriots) sought to actively racialize the government in support of their own interests. In fact, many of their interests were already dependent upon white racism – be it through the economic system of slavery, segregated educational systems, support for white colonial expansion, supremacist beliefs of white civilization, and much else. In various editions of Racist America, Joe Feagin has poignantly showed just how foundational white racism is to the formation of the new nation of the US. As Feagin has noted, the Constitutional Convention
was not just a political gathering with the purpose of creating a new bourgeois-democratic government; it was also a meeting to protect the racial and economic interests of [white] men with substantial wealth in the colonies (p. 3).
By 1787, at least 7 sections of the Constitution dealt with slavery from the perspective of the ruling elite. Indeed the US is a “house founded on racism” but the racial framing of the white public had already been taking place before the Constitutional Convention.
As fleshed out in depth by Robert Parkinson in his book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, the “Founding Fathers” were able to effectively manufacture and intertwine white racism into the elite’s goals of revolting against the British. Before and during the American Revolution, the elite framers of the soon-to-be new nation had already began reinforcing and legitimating “a system of racial oppression that they thought would ensure that whites, especially men of means, would rule for centuries” (Feagin, 2014, p. 6). As the private infiltration of the public sphere had already formally began during this time, the Founding Fathers and their white male acolytes effectively used the tools of the press to manufacture and mobilize white racist fears in an effort to unify American colonists around a new national/racial identity to revolt against the British. Parkinson noted how
The founding fathers also were not shy about fabricating a story. In 1782, Benjamin Franklin – concerned about a potential reconciliation with Britain – reported that American forces had discovered packages containing the scalps of women and children taken by Seneca Indians. Franklin then wrote a fake letter from naval great John Paul Jones urging the importance of independence because the king “engages savages to murder their defenseless farmers, women and children.
Men such as Benjamin Franklin were key actors in manufacturing and distributing white lies in order to mobilize a new nationalist public to move against the British. Thus, white racism/nationalism are foundational to the formation of the U.S. It is no coincidence that the U.S. National Anthem plays off of these same white fears of rebellious slaves defecting to British lines in an effort to continue manufacturing white nationalist solidarity.
Transformation of the public sphere
Throughout the course of the 18th century, and particularly on into the 19th century, the new American public sphere was being substantially shaped by EWM with private interests. The initial formation of the white nationalist “patriot” narrative, already being propagated through various elite-run media outlets, was beginning to shape a new middle-and-lower class culture of white nationalism. Sociologist Jurgen Habermas broadly referred to this transition as going from a culture-debating public to a culture-consuming public. The new culture to be consumed, as directed by elite framers, was a culture of white nationalism.
The Cultural/Institutional Politics of Racism
As EWM with increasingly private interests capitalistically responded to the new “public” adoption of white cultural nationalism, the politics of white nationalism (which are significantly built upon racist, sexist, and classist programs) became embedded within social, economic, and cultural institutions – especially institutions of opinion control. A key factor in accomplishing and legitimizing this feat was what W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as the public and psychological wage of whiteness. This wage of whiteness was a capitalistic reinvigoration of the “common cause” of patriotism in order to unite non-elite whites and manufacture buy-in for the EWM colonial power of the US. As Feagin stated, “the elite-crafted social and ideological arrangements that deflected white workers’ class consciousness were threatened” (p. 25) by the new freedoms and rights obtained by black Americans over the course of the 19th century. During these threatening times, and particularly with the “white flight” from the public arena to private arenas during this era, EWM politics of domination became further entrenched within the institutions of opinion control. Sport is one such sociocultural institution that emerged from and was framed by the private politics of the EWM in order to collectively rally and celebrate both elite and non-elite white men.
Sport and the Neo-Common Cause
Characteristic of the visceral nature of coloniality, colonial powers seek to re-articulate their elite politics through affective mediums according to Achille Mbembe – a more refined, mechanistic postulation than Habermas’s discussion on the role of “institutions of opinion control.” Perhaps one of the furthest-reaching, affective institutions in the US is the sport industry. It is within the sporting realm that elite politics have been strategically embedded to better control the American “public.” As my colleagues and I have shown elsewhere, various sports and sporting entities emerged from the mid-to-late 1800s as a response to the manufactured needs of white masculinity amidst the dissembling of chattel slavery, black political progress, women’s suffrage movements, and more. The re-definition of white American masculinity during this time became the cultural and ideological framework upon which the “modern” sport industry was built. Especially as the development of capitalism spurred the industrial growth of sport entities, the politics of racism, sexism, and nationalism became deeply entrenched in the already white-masculine-framed institution.
Today, sport often operates as the ideal institutional representation of American meritocracy. For instance, take this quote from an NFL executive speaking on why Colin Kaepernick is not currently playing for an NFL team:
There’s been a lot of noise about this, obviously. But at the end of the day, we’re part of the ultimate meritocracy. So if someone feels like this guy can help win games, he’ll be in the league.
In this instance, the white-framed narrative of meritocracy is explicitly invoked to rationalize the social lynching of Colin Kaepernick. Indeed, this meritocratic view of sport is part of what sociologist of sport Jay Coakley refers to as the “great sport myth.” Not only is sport not a meritocratic structure, but it has taken on the elite’s politics of oppression, systemic domination, and the rationalization of such. Sport is a uniquely affective space through which hegemonic politics become augmented and rationalized.
For example, let us look at a contemporary reinvigoration of the foundational “common cause” of white nationalism in the NFL: the New England Patriots. Along with a team mascot branding that romantically re-tells the white-framed patriot narrative and being the most successful NFL franchise on the field since the year 2000 (note the discursive importance of the patriot narrative in the mainstream media post-9/11), the trio of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft have themselves become cultural symbols of white nationalism. As of July 19, 2017, Tom Brady’s jersey was the number one selling NFL jersey in the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas, Florida, and Virginia. It is no coincidence then when Donald Trump would refer to Tom Brady’s “innocence” during the 2016 Presidential race while Brady was being investigated for cheating.
Trump has a friendship with Brady that extends back to 2002 just after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl. Brady himself kept a “Make America Great Again” hat in his football locker during the presidential campaign. Trump’s mobilization of his relationship with Brady and Brady’s status particularly among conservative white men demonstrates one of the contemporary ties of white cultural nationalism with EWM politics. Again, this is no coincidence. The US “public sphere” has been designed to enable the mobilization of white nationalisms for this very purpose.
Conclusion: The White Army Persists
In the US, when the EWM dominance system is threatened by resistance (e.g., anti-racist protests, critical public consciousness) or needs to exert control over its subjects, elite politics that have now shaped the middle and lower classes of white Americans necessitate a nationalistic response. Structurally, I refer to this as the activation of the “white army.” Violent white nationalism is never limited to an “incident.” There are no accidents involving white nationalism. This is because white nationalism is not an ephemeral phenomenon. Indeed, it is central to the foundation of the US and the stimulation and activation of a white nationalism is what racist America is designed to do. It is the lifeblood by which EWM coloniality rules its own nation as well as how it legitimizes its imperial conquests around the globe. White cultural nationalism re-centers supremacist politics, including support for racial-colonial projects such as neoliberalism, and actively terrorizes non-white communities. In doing so, the EWM become better positioned to mobilize and exert control over their own white people. As we continue to witness increased racial violence by neo-nationalists and other “well-meaning” whites, we are reminded of a sobering reality: the U.S. depends on white violence to function as a colonial power.
Dr. Anthony Weems is an assistant professor of sport management at Western Carolina University. His teaching and research interests revolve around social, ethical, and legal aspects of sport with a particular focus on race, leadership, and policy development.