This past weekend, I was riding bikes with my ten-year old daughter, Justice, when she asked me what a white supremacist is. She had heard from her friend’s mom, a self-identified liberal, that white supremacists are people who think “whites” are better than anyone else. This prompted a long discussion between us about different types of white supremacists. When most liberals use the term “white supremacist,” they usually have a stereotypical image in mind of an uneducated, “white” southerner, who is an outspoken racist. They use offensive words regularly and are just not very good at hiding their racism. These white supremacists are psychologically useful to many liberal “white” people who want to divorce themselves of guilt and prove that they are good, non-racist people. These liberals subscribe to what Joe Feagin and Hernan Vera call “sincere fictions of the white self.” The ultimate goal of such individuals is to show that they are generally good people. They can easily do so by separating themselves from overt racists like the ones in Charlottesville. If they openly show their disgust of racist symbols, such as the confederate flag and the statue of Robert E. Lee, they can secure their place as non-racists. While it is important to challenge overt racism and racist symbols, it is equally important to denounce other more insidious and covert forms of racism in which liberal minded folks engage.
Liberal white supremacy is not outspoken. It manifests quietly in the kinds of acts liberals are quick to condemn and those they let slide. I see white supremacy in many of my liberal friends, who condemn the statue of Robert E. Lee and the confederate flag, but would never call their child’s principal or teacher a racist for promoting uncritical school celebrations of Columbus Day or Thanksgiving. To do so would make them feel uncomfortable and might put their children in an unfavorable position with school authorities.
So, every year, I find myself alone in challenging the school curriculum. The kind of homework Justice brought home in Kindergarten, which she immediately began to protest, included an endearing puppet of Christopher Columbus and a poem about how brave he was and how we should strive to be like him. Five years later, I went to Justice’s sixth grade orientation only to find a history textbook that portrayed Columbus sympathetically, noting a quote from his ship logs, where he describes indigenous people as: “Well-built people of handsome structure…and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts.” The book leaves out the part where Columbus stated, “With fifty men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” Not a peep from liberal parents. At most, they can muster an uncomfortable stare or a thoroughly disgusted “Tsk!” Still, few are willing to call the school officials, who condone this curriculum, racists. In our liberal town, there is a statue honoring Columbus with an inscription that reads:
DISCOVERER OF AMERICA
DEDICATED TO THE VALLEY RESIDENTS
OF THE TOWNSHIP OF WEST ORANGE
NEW JERSEY OCTOBER 10, 1992
So, this was dedicated on the five-hundredth year anniversary of 1492. At the same time in Genoa, Italy 20,000 people took to the streets in protest of the quincentenary. Where’s the outrage among liberals in the Northern U.S. against this statue and others like it?
The same problem is present at school celebrations of Thanksgiving. One year, I witnessed kids playing and saying that they were Indians. My liberal “white” friend, who I know is someone that cares about social justice and vehemently denounces white supremacists in Charlottesville, corrected her daughter by telling her she should use the phrase, “Native Americans.” She kind of missed the point. A correction in words is not enough to challenge the racist ideology that encourages “white” children to see indigenous people as caricatures to play. This also connects to a school curriculum and media images that treat Native Americans as objects of the past.
Instead of protesting these issues and calling them what they are, racist, most liberals just go along with them. They don’t want to start trouble, when it is in their own backyards, so they remain silent and complicit in their everyday liberal white supremacy. However, in the case of Charlottesville, a place that seems far removed from liberal bubbles in the North, it is easy for these same parents, who refuse to speak up other days of the year, to condemn white supremacy. These liberals also have a special hatred for Donald Trump and a special love for Barack Obama. These political opposites serve the same psychological function for a lot of liberal “white” folks. Enthusiastically embracing Barack Obama allowed “white” liberals to prove they didn’t have a racist bone in their bodies in the same way that hating Donald Trump did.
Since the election of Donald Trump, it seems that identifying as a liberal has become, to some, a radical act. I want to caution my liberal comrades against this. Consider what Malcolm X had to say about “white” liberals and conservatives:
The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful than the conservative. The liberal is more hypocritical than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor; and by winning the friendship, allegiance, and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or tool in this political “football game” that is constantly raging between the white liberals and white conservatives.
Politically the American Negro is nothing but a football and the white liberals control this mentally dead ball through tricks of tokenism: false promises of integration and civil rights. In this profitable game of deceiving and exploiting the political politician of the American Negro, those white liberals have the willing cooperation of the Negro civil rights leaders. These “leaders” sell out our people for just a few crumbs of token recognition and token gains. These “leaders” are satisfied with token victories and token progress because they themselves are nothing but token leaders.
The white conservatives aren’t friends of the Negro either, but they at least don’t try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox.
The job of the Negro civil rights leader is to make the Negro forget that the wolf and the fox both belong to the (same) family. Both are canines; and no matter which one of them the Negro places his trust in, he never ends up in the White House, but always in the dog house.
Both types of white supremacy do not challenge the dominant white racial frame. In fact, they support it. Liberal white supremacists are concerned with finding evil racists that allow them to look good. They do not challenge the racial or economic status quo unless it is safe to do so and then only if it does not upset their social and economic positions. They would deny that they are white supremacists, because they do not say racist things, but they are just as culpable in maintaining the larger system of white supremacy.
Angie Beeman is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Baruch College. She is currently writing a book manuscript entitled, “The Limits of Liberal Ideology: Silencing Racism and Privileging Class in Progressive Movements.”